In Celebration Of Ana Lily Amirpour’s Strong, Complicated Women
Disclosure: Tim League co-owns NEON and Birth.Movies.Death.
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A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night was a hard sell. Entirely in Farsi, shot in black and white and with the spooky stuff kept to a minimum throughout (something that's since become a trend in horror, with recent movies such as The Transfiguration and Personal Shopper), it was brazenly marketed as the first ever Iranian vampire Western. In truth, it's much more than that.
Part horror movie, part Western, part romance and loaded with references to filmmakers like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, the flick defies any kind of simplistic categorization. Achingly cool and styled to within an inch of its life (what could look better in monochrome than a black-and-white striped sweater?) it was a strikingly original introduction to Ana Lily Amirpour.
Its most iconic sequence finds the lead character, known simply as The Girl, skateboarding in a chador in the middle of the night, establishing a very different kind of strong female lead, a Final Girl (in horror terms) with real bite, to match this new, defiantly female voice in cinema.
Actor Sheila Vand, then a virtual unknown, imbued The Girl with an otherworldly, alien quality. First glimpsed from behind, all black like a shadow, she's instantly imposing. Later, we note the sharpness of her cheekbones, her eyeliner, her bangs and, of course, her fangs, which pop out with a sickening "click" when her lips are touched by an unsuspecting man.
Amirpour lets us know right off the bat that there's something off, her chosen title alluding to something unheard of, something that should not be done as a female. Her story is automatically subversive, danger is afoot from the outset, but the source isn't who or, rather, what one expects it to be. Here, the focus of her ire is the alpha male as represented by Dominic Rains' coke-snorting, iron-pumping, disco-dancing pimp (so hideously misogynistic he has the word "SEX" tattooed across his throat).
The Girl's destruction of this ghastly man is the nastiest sequence in the movie, the closest it gets to being a pure genre film (finger-chomping, particularly by women, has since become quite fashionable in horror). Afterwards, she glides off into the night, her chador flying behind her like a cape. The notion of whether The Girl kills indiscriminately, or if she has a moral compass, is left tantalizingly, purposefully unclear.
That shot of The Girl cutting through the night on a skateboard is an image Amirpour nods to, somewhat cheekily, in follow-up The Bad Batch, which sees recently dismembered Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) using a board to pull herself along through the desert. The tone, as with everything in Amirpour's sun-drenched, colourful and super-loud sophomore feature, is almost jarringly different. The trippy, surrealist elements are more overt and pronounced, the violence bloodier. What connects both female protagonists is the instinct to survive.
Arlen's trajectory is less obtuse than The Girl's. We watch as she's literally broken down bit by bit, hungry cannibals lobbing off an arm and a leg in quick succession. Her resolve doesn't weaken, however. She's smart, resourceful, and tough, even if it means dragging her body along for miles without water or shade. For Waterhouse's first thirty minutes or so onscreen, she doesn't speak a word. A lifetime of struggle and hardship is communicated through her eyes, something she shares with The Girl (along with a penchant for expertly-applied eyeliner.)
As with her predecessor, an alpha male is again the target for Arlen's rage, this time in the form of beefy psycho Miami Man (Jason Momoa), who's introduced via a perfectly obnoxious Die Antwoord track. However, complicated feelings and a desire for a degree of stability add a layer of intrigue to their burgeoning relationship/odd couple situation.
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night's male love interest, Arash, may kick the film off, but his story is wildly less interesting than The Girl's. It's clear he's not the focus. In contrast to how these things usually work out, he needs her way more than she needs him. The same turns out to be the case with Arlen and Miami Man, particularly when she outsmarts him, stealing his knife and turning the blade on him. Both men assume the slight women standing in front of them require their assistance, are at their mercy even, when really the reverse is true.
The Girl is assured she'll be taken care of, that she won't be left alone, when really she is the threat. And although Arlin develops a complicated affection for Miami Man, she isn't reliant on him. The two share a similarly intimate moment to The Girl and Arash, their eyes locked on each other, the distance between them charged with danger. When Arlen takes his hand, it's an act of bravery, an attempt to connect.
As with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, The Bad Batch's title suggests there's something off about its central character (though, to their credit, it's never quite clear what). In both cases, the female focus is strong, unyielding and singular. Aesthetic choices are important, from The Girl's flowing chador to Arlin's yellow shorts. We're meant to imprint these images on our brains, the two leads standing out significantly amidst the darkness of Bad City and the harsh light of the desert respectively.
Waterhouse adjusts her gait to account for her character's missing limbs (the idea of a disabled character front and centre still feels refreshing, even after the majesty of Furiosa), while Vand hunches ever so slightly forward, giving the impression of a creature about to pounce (one of the most interesting shots in the movie sees her emerge from a full bathtub like The Creature From The Black Lagoon).
The Girl is villainous, complicated, difficult, not easily compromised, figured out or even necessarily empathized with. Her complexity is notable because women typically aren't gifted these kinds of roles, particularly when it comes to horror (though this is changing with the release of movies like Raw and The Witch). It's especially interesting to see a lack of recuse or resolution for her character. There's a sense she might not even stay with Arash after the fact, should the wind blow her elsewhere.
The same could be said of Arlen, who is difficult, stubborn and self-sufficient. She has the same sense of agency and chooses her own destiny, but similarly isn't fixed in her new situation. "I want to be the solution for something" she tells Miami Man, her desire for normalcy, maybe even a return to a previous life, obvious. What links both characters, The Girl and Arlen, then is a sense of humanity, an instinct for survival, an inner strength driving them forward to the next moment.
Whether gliding through the night or dragging her body forward in the dead heat of the day, both refuse to stop fighting.