By Tara Judah

If it were possible to walk past the horizon of a Western plain, you would find yourself roaming the deserted streets of Bad City, where industrial oil pumps suck the life out of the landscape and bodies are dumped; uncovered, unclaimed.

A boy looks up to an image of masculinity that resembles James Dean’s discarded understudy. A woman combs the streets, at night, on foot or by skateboard, searching for someone whose wrongdoings are equal to her own. Another woman walks the streets alone. The interior spaces that they enter are disquieting. Bad City has been drained: of oil, of colour and of blood.

Though the tone recalls the early work of Jim Jarmusch – and just so happens to release at the tail end of a year where Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) was highly celebrated across the globe – Ana Lily Amirpour uses light and shadow in a remarkable way, one that feels auteuristically distinct, despite marking her feature film debut: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.

Inside our imposter James Dean’s home is a man addled by the anxiety and desperation of drug abuse. A television light flickers like his highs and lows and a fluorescent light zaps and pulses as an intruder arrives, like a mosquito trap, almost as if the mise-en-scene were set up to entice and destroy its players.

The first of what becomes the most startling recurring motif in this film – a searing light, emanating from within the diegesis, cutting across both the image and the characters – strikes at his head and sets the tone, like a lightning bolt of grief.

Arash (our Dean wannabe) is stripped of his Thunderbird as payment for his father’s drug habit. His anger is too much to be contained inside the house so he walks out into the street and punches a brick wall. The permanence of the metaphorical wall he is up against quite literally injures him and the camera draws back to reveal a huge pothole, where his T-bird was parked only moments before. The hollow is so immense that it almost swallows the preceding scene. There are many absences in Bad City.

A low rumble – one that we become familiar with and learn to anticipate as the narrative presses on – rolls in as if a thunderstorm were about to break overhead. With it comes an approach: a woman wearing a striped hipster t-shirt, thick, black eyeliner, heavy, dark lipstick and a chador. “I’m not light,” she claims. She is, then, a representative of the darkness, appearing in contrast to the light that strikes the citizens of Bad City with so much grief.

Light and shadow – effects that stem from the same source – take on inconstant qualities, never allowing themselves to be so easily aligned with ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

The streetlights cannot be contained and bleed across the darkness, permeating one another.

After locking eyes earlier in passing, Arash and ‘The Girl’ have a long anticipated, sustained encounter. Arash is dressed as Dracula for a party. Drunk, and high, he stands and stares directly into a streetlight, mesmerized by its luminescence. Another, off-frame, searing light touches her head, just as one strikes the image, crossing the top of the frame. They each recognize something of themselves in the other as they embark upon a strange, sensual, though not necessarily sexual, friendship; one that may or may not survive the shadows of their pasts.

Crossing to the interior of her room the light changes, controlled by a hanging mirror ball. The light now bleeds through spots instead of lines. There are reflections casts across their faces, the objects in the room and the walls. But it does not come directly from a light source. There are no extra-diegetic lights once we enter her home. It is a solace from the structure of the film. She is either to be feared or protected and we must judge that carefully.

Arash spins the mirror ball and it changes the pace of the film. He takes control of the placement and permeation of the light. Another rumble attempts to break into the diegetic space and a beating – like that of a pulsing heart – consumes The Girl, the moment, and the scene.

Our next image is daylight.

After the dead of night there is little solace in daybreak. The eyesore of industrial machinery continues to reap natural resources from the earth. Indistinguishable high-pitched sounds mark the film’s climax as Arash’s drug addled father tears up their home before seizing prey of his own. There is a struggle and another intense scene where light and shadow wrestle for screen space. But it is all just more of the same for Bad City: death and destruction, without fanfare.

Light floods into an underpass; a dark silhouette stands clear in its way. Smoke rises and the rumble persists. Headlights shine bright in the purest black of night, paving a difficult but necessary road to recovery ahead. Arash and The Girl leave Bad City and head towards the horizon. We are left to contemplate their return journey along the road of immorality.

Such striking images reach beyond the screen and burn themselves into our consciousness. Amirpour’s debut is a truly arresting work of art.

Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour
Produced by Sina Sayyah, Justin Begnaud, Elijah Wood
Written by Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains
Cinematography: Lyle Vincent
Edited by Alex O’Flinn
Production company: SpectreVision, Logan Pictures
Country: United States
Language: Persian
Year: 2014