The Good, the Bad and the Undead

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is shot in black and white, mixing elements of noir and spaghetti Westerns. Kino Lorber

Night: Stray tumbleweeds drift alongside a highway. Oil rigs that have long ceased drilling stand in silent sentinel. A freight train chugs past into a void of desert, dust and depravity. A young greaser-type, hair pomade-slick and wrapped in a leather jacket, stands along the train tracks and leans against his car with a cat-eyed lady, who he doesn't know is a vampire. Under dim streetlights he is piercing her ears, at her request. He accidentally draws blood and fangs suddenly spring from her mouth. A reflex. She pulls her teeth back then walks wordlessly back into the town where brawlers, pimps and addicts crawl.

This is Bad City, the setting of the new noir Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The film is set in Iran (the dialogue is in Farsi) but looks like nowhere—or anywhere. It's a black-and-white Wild at Heart meets Nosferatu, with a steel-toed kick of contemporary post-punk attitude for good measure. Consider the main character: an androgynous antihero vampire known only as the Girl, played by Sheila Vand, patrols the streets of Bad City for trouble and shimmies alone in her room to bouncy synth-pop, Prince and Margaret Atwood posters behind her. Then she rolls into town, black chador billowing behind her, prowling for some fresh jugulars.

But this vampire isn't a cold-blooded killer. No, the Girl is a vigilante who metes out her own form of justice in the seedy Bad City. For instance, early in the film she feeds on a tiger-tattooed pimp, Saeed (Dominic Rains), who runs the town — she's observed him abusing others, primarily women, and won't let it stand. Everything's gravy until she meets fellow loner Arash (Arash Marandi), a hunky Thunderbird-driving mortal who sets her heart pumping. Arash is besting his own demons in Bad City, caring for his drug-addicted and gambler father (Marshell Manesh) who is deep into debt with Saeed.

The love story gets tangled when Arash's father has an encounter with the Girl after a drug-addled bender with a prostitute. Given the Girl's acquired taste for misandry, this can't end well. But will the tale of Arash and the Girl live up to the adage that love conquers all? Even vampires? "She's in control of whether or not she could kill [Arash]," says Vand of her character, "But she's not in control of whether or not she falls in love with him — and there's something cool about that, that love can feel more dangerous than murder."

A Girl..., executive produced by Elijah Wood, was written and directed by Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour. The director, who grew up in the United States but has spoken about feeling "really Iranian at home," often focuses her work on alternative lives in Iran, and won the Adrienne Shelly Screenwriting Fellowship in 2009 after the Tribeca Film Festival. She conceptualized the idea for A Girl... when, on a whim, she donned a chador on the set of another Iranian film and thought: Iranian vampire walks home alone at night, is trailed by a predatory man, and kills him. Lead actor Sheila Vand, who is also Iranian-American, met Amirpour through a mutual friend, and the two began sharing ideas in table readings for other scripts.

The pair worked on several short films together that Amirpour wrote and directed before A Girl..., which opened in New York and Los Angeles in late November. According to Vand, Amirpour's vision is focused and detailed; the director had already pre-selected and received the permits for nearly all the music in the film, a stylish blend of contemporary Iranian indie rock and British electro-pop. Amirpour also had Vand read Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire; watch a slew of animal YouTube videos, particularly ones with cats, snakes and tigers, to capture The Girl's slithering nature; and Westerns and motorcycle dramas, like Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish.

Vand says that she "could tell [Amirpour] was the next generation of storytellers that I wanted to be a part of," and Amirpour wrote the part of the Girl with Vand in mind. By Vand's admission the pair have been cultivating a dream collaborative relationship like that of David Lynch and Laura Dern, or Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman, comparisons she makes when we meet for tea one rainy afternoon in New York. Like those filmmakers' weighty stories, Amirpour's is a flick that reminds you why you love film.

The collaboration between Vand and Amirpour has yielded what may become a cult favorite. While it's not frightening, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night taps into the gray middle ground between right and wrong that makes us, well, human – or fanged undead creatures. Amirpour's tense, long shots turn the tension way up and Vand plays a compelling character, equally terrifying and vulnerable. "Vampires are super lonely, which is so romantic," Amirpour told The New York Times. "And there's all that guilt, which is like an aphrodisiac. Everything's better with a little guilt."

It's possible that the Girl's guilt is what drives her to try to be Bad City's moral compass. She has a nose for social justice: her kills have all been people who torment others, especially women. Her feminist bent is not explicitly pronounced, but her first of few words in the film are a dare: "Are you a good boy?" Yet unlike many of the vampires in Buffy who killed for the sake of killing, you get the sense that she dislikes the act, and only feeds when she's desperately hungry. The Girl is not the lusty vampire popularized by True Blood, either. She's more akin to the the weathered cowboys from Westerns, whose actions always left audiences wondering: Are you good or are you bad?

Maybe the point is that no one, hard as they try, can truly be good somewhere as gone as Bad City. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was shot in Taft, California (pop. 9,327), about 35 miles from Bakersfield, a perfect blank canvas onto which the filmmakers could paint the landscape of Bad City. They hired street artists to tag street signs and walls in Farsi, and made their own currency to bring Bad City to life. A first-generation Iranian-American, Vand has never been to Iran, and has just photographs and stories to rely on to imagine how the country might be. Amirpour, who is also first-generation, has been to Iran but has called it "completely alien."

This is why Bad City is a place that feels both familiar and foreign. The film is a "Western" at heart but set in the Middle East, and knowing the context in which it was made, I can't help but think it also nods to first-generation upbringings, during which you must make sense of both your parents' mother culture and the society in which you grew up in. That tension has found a home in A Girl..., which earned Amirpour a Breakthrough Director award at Tuesday's Gotham Independent Film Awards.

Although its drama shouldn't go unnoticed, it's the film's tongue-in-cheek moments that stick in your memory, such as the scene depicting the first time the girl and Arash meet walking on the street. She's blood-lusting, and he's disoriented and drugged-out after a costume party, to which he went (of course) dressed like Dracula. In short: the perfect prey. She circles him, edging between kiss and kill. Smelling the fear – or rather, lack thereof — on him, she...does nothing. He sits on the sidewalk, and, in a drug-induced state of rebellion, refuses to get up, so she wheels him on her skateboard indoors. The gesture is moving and, although their lips never touch in the scene, erotic; further proof that the most poetic kinds of love may be unrequited.