Atmosphere is an important element in any great film, and it is a hard one to perfect.When pulled off correctly, it helps to establish a distinct mood and create an emotional connection with the audience. Directors like Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch are masters of atmosphere — they create unique and often unsettling worlds within the first 10 minutes of any given film. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” the debut film from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour, wears the influence of these auteurs on its sleeve and is the better for it.
Amirpour takes viewers into the heart of Bad City, a derelict Iranian ghost-town, where they meet Arash (Arash Marandi), who Amirpour has called the “Persian James Dean.” He is a hip, young gardener who is forced to sell his ’57 Thunderbird convertible to drug-dealing pimp Saeed (Dominic Rains) to pay for his father’s drug habit. In the aftermath of this event, the characters become intertwined with the titular girl (Sheila Vand), an unnamed vampire who stalks the streets at night looking for an evil presence to feast on.
The film’s collage of styles makes it a film student’s dream. It is a spaghetti Western meets “Nosferatu,” with some romance and surrealism thrown in. The characters are deliberately archetypical — Saeed is an over-the-top psychotic drug dealer and has the tattoos to prove it. Amirpour revels in the pure pulp of it all, and the amount of fun she seems to be having is easily felt by the viewer. It is hard not to smile when the main character prowls about on a skateboard to find her victim in one scene and dances to electro-pop in her bedroom in the next.
Filmgoers anticipating a gory horror movie from the midnight movie circuit will be disappointed, however, as the film more closely recalls the slow burn and stylized aesthetic of neo-noir films like “Drive.” In fact, the film’s slow movement is often to its detriment. There is very little in the way of plot momentum, and Amirpour does not seem interested in establishing motivations for her characters. Consequently, the film’s thematic concerns are overpowered by its stylistic flourishes.
Amirpour makes up for the plot’s shortcomings with an evocative atmosphere and superb music selection. She has experience as a DJ and it shows. Each song selected fits its scene perfectly and contributes more to the mood than any additional dialogue would. If the music selection stands as any proof, the film succeeds because Amirpour put thought into the hypnotic mood she wanted to create. “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is not a perfect film, but it is definitely the best feminist Iranian vampire Western ever.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 19 print edition. Email Zach Martin at [email protected]