“Middle Eastern feminist vampire romance” is likely to remain an underpopulated cinematic subgenre, but at least it now has a luminous standard-bearer in “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” A sly, slinky creeper set in an imaginary Iranian underworld — appropriately realized in glistening black and white — U.S.-based writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s auspicious debut feature spices its genre stew with elements of Lynchian neo-noir and even spaghetti Western, but the film’s pointed, contemporary gender politics are very much its own. Even allowing for the recent cultural ubiquity of fang fiction, “Girl” is too arch and deliberate to cross over in the manner of “Let the Right One In,” but will continue to draw blood on the festival circuit.
No film that revels in extended shots of a poker-faced, hijab-clad Nosferata cruising the streets for blood on a slow-rolling skateboard can be said to be playing things entirely straight, but Amirpour’s film also avoids the midnight-madness irreverence that its genre-mashing premise might have invited. Neither, for all its still-of-the-desert-night atmosphere, is “Girl” an entirely cold-hearted exercise, as it etches a sweet, sad and solemnly fatalistic love story between feeding times.
The setting is the fictitious Bad City: a stateless, seemingly lawless town, supposedly in Iran, but with stretches of burnt-out industry and little-boxes suburbia that lend it a distinct American slant. (The film was shot in California.) The name’s evocation of Frank J. Miller’s comicbook crime capital “Sin City” can hardly be coincidental: Graphic novels are another point of reference of Amirpour, not least in her high-contrast monochrome aesthetic, and she has written one to tie in with the film’s release. These Western design intrusions are significant in a film that repeatedly shows Iranian cultural tradition — not least the status of women in Muslim society — to be in a state of flux.
Narratively, it takes some time before the film shows its teeth, so to speak: The opening beats are concerned with establishing the personal and financial woes of protagonist Arash (German-Iranian star Arash Marandi) — not named as such in the press notes, which credit him instead as “the Iranian James Dean.” The similarity hardly needs such underlining: He’s a pretty, bequiffed young punk with a slick vintage sports car and dreams that stretch beyond Bad City. Blocking his exit are Hossein (Marshall Manesh), his dying, dependent junkie of a dad, and dangerous dealer Saeed, who, owed an unpayable sum by Hossein, takes Arash’s beloved ride instead.
Saeed, a repellent misogynist with the word “sex” tattooed across his throat, has a sideline pimping out and routinely abusing a past-her-prime prostitute (Mozhan Marno); he gets his comeuppance, however, when he encounters the silent, serene-faced girl of the title (Sheila Vand), and mistakes her for another pliable victim. Viewers already know that this nameless figure cannot be judged by her traditional attire: A creature of the night with a taste for dark lipstick and dreamy electro-pop, she appears to take feisty inspiration from the poster of Vogue-era Madonna on her bedroom wall.
Preying on men who take as given the submissiveness of women in her position, she also performs a little grassroots gender reformation, scaring the wits out of a local pre-adolescent with toothy promises of what will happen if he’s not “a good boy.” She’s disarmed, however, by Arash, a romantic whose respect for more archaic Islamic codes of honor between men and women draws mockery from others. As she chastely submits to his wooing, even her vampiric instincts are suspended: Rather than breaking his flesh, she allows him to pierce her ears in a tender, erotically charged scene. Some may see this development as running counter to the film’s female-empowerment agenda, but non-violent equality is the endgame here.
For genre auds resistant to such readings, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” still offers multiple ambient pleasures — many of them down to Lyle Vincent’s lustrous lensing, its velvety finish making a Gotham-esque playground of this bleak, indeterminate wasteland. The package sounds as good as it looks: Whistling desert winds dominate the pin-sharp sound work, while Amirpour’s impeccable music selections run the gamut from contemporary Arab rock to ’80s New Wave, perfectly in line with the Middle-East-meets-West flavour of proceedings.
Performances from the uniformly arresting-looking ensemble match the languid stylization of the piece, though Vand, who impressed last year in a small but critical role in Ben Affleck’s “Argo,” continues to intrigue. Even Masuka — the lummox-like tabby playing Arash’s cat — appears to be under Amirpour’s woozy spell.