What Girls Do in The Shadows: A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night
Ana Lily Amirpour's A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014) invites spectators into a nocturnal world of secretive, gloomy recesses and shady city streets. The film follows the story of a lonely vampire, known only as the Girl (Sheila Vand), who targets misogynistic men as her prey. As she skateboards through the city hunting for her next victim, she also meets other outcasts in her neighbourhood and forms connections with them. The title immediately evokes an image of a girl in a position of vulnerability, playing on the widespread idea that girls should not walk home alone at night lest they fall prey to monstrous men lurking in the shadows. But, Amirpour unsettles this power dynamic by making the girl the monster: she is a vigilante vampire who preys on misogynistic men at night. Additionally, the girl wears a chador, which frequently resembles a superhero's cape as it flutters in the wind. Associating this garment with power challenges stereotypes about Muslim women and women from the Middle Eastern region as victims who lack agency. The film's fictional location of Bad City – set in Iran and populated by characters who speak Farsi but actually shot in California – functions as an imaginary space which Amirpour describes as "not beholden to the rules or laws of the real world."1 In creating an agentic, potent image of a chador-clad girl walking on a shadowy street, the film confronts the gendered violence that governs public space within patriarchal culture and envisions a world in which this power imbalance could be reconfigured.
While Amirpour has repeatedly described the film as an "Iranian vampire western," its velvety black and white imagery, themes of isolation, underworld crime, doubles and disguise, the character of the seductive femme fatale vampire, and the desolate setting of Bad City (reminiscent of Frank Miller's neo-noir comics, Sin City, and the film of the same name) strongly evoke a noir sensibility. The noir world is often shrouded by oppressive shadows and a sense of perpetual night, both visually and thematically, and its duplicitous characters are frequently doomed to a dark, tragic fate. As a result, noir is seen as a predominantly bleak and pessimistic genre, pervaded by moods of despair, alienation and paranoia. While Amirpour's film conforms to many of these staples of noir, especially in its representation of criminal underworlds, loneliness, the corrupt city and the femme fatale, it crucially shifts the representation of darkness into new territory. Under the cover of darkness, the Girl can undertake her vigilante work unobserved. Living in the shadowy margins of her social world, the Girl is emboldened to commit acts of transgression that disrupt patriarchal power, exemplified in her refusal to conform to the edict that girls should not walk home alone at night, and in her violent exsanguinations of men who terrorise women in her community. In noir, darkness has often been a visual symbol of the femme fatale's immorality and villainous duplicity, which must be investigated, exposed and punished by the male protagonist. But in this film, the femme fatale is not an object of investigation and is instead the central protagonist, a kind of superhero who operates within the space of darkness to rid Bad City of violent men. Darkness and disguise are enabling phenomena for this female character; they provide a space of slippage where everyday rules dissolve and where she is able to exercise her power.
As a closely surveilled group, young women are often hypervisible and heavily scrutinised. Feminine adolescence is marked by flux, and resultantly, the girl is often thought of as potentially rebellious, unruly and even at risk of crisis. In a world controlled by adult men, girls are therefore imagined to be in need of "monitoring for all too possible deviation or failure."2 This secures girls' position within a complex web of gazes designed to contain and manage girlhood and to guide girls' progress towards normative adult femininity. To be unobserved provides an opportunity to evade these regulatory gazes and to claim a position that transcends them. Noir's intensely dark shadows can be slipped in and out of and they can dissipate and intensify, creating an opportunity to conceal and reveal oneself at will. The recess of the shadow functions as a liminal, flexible space, occupied by the figure of the vampire who is herself doubly liminal by virtue of her status as a girl and as a monster. Furthermore, the Girl wears a chador, which allows her "to be simultaneously visible and hidden, therefore enabling possibilities for transgression."3 Amirpour similarly describes the Girl's chador as "a brilliant disguise. No one is going to expect transgression from her."4 As Erik Mortenson suggests, noir's shadows are phenomena that profoundly evoke ambiguity and uncertainty and, in that space of flux and instability, cultural norms can be contested and resisted.5 In this film, concealment in shadow and dark fabric becomes a visual strategy for subverting gendered expectations.
This visual strategy is clear in a scene from the middle of the film, where the Girl clandestinely observes Hossein (Marshall Manesh) as he harasses his drug dealer, Atti (Mozhan Marnò), on the streets of Bad City. The Girl has been watching over and protecting Atti over the course of the film. The pair soon notice a presence – the Girl – on the other side of the street, but the camera withholds an image of her for a prolonged period here, instead focusing on Hossein's face as a sense of dread and alarm settles in. When the scene finally proceeds to the reverse shot of the Girl, it is out of focus, representing her as an indistinct and almost spectral presence. These techniques of withholding the reverse shot and use of soft focus allow her to temporarily evade even the spectator's gaze. Combined with the focus on Hossein's unsettled and frightened reaction to the Girl, these representational techniques allow us to truly sense the power of her transgressive invisibility. Eventually, the camera slowly pulls focus and we see her clearly for the first time in this scene. She then begins to literally "shadow" him – as he takes a drag on his cigarette, she mimes the same action; as he begins walking, so does she, and so on. Hossein quickly becomes more and more frantic as she stalks him and he eventually runs away while she smirks with satisfaction at her power. The Girl's ability to enact her power in the shadowy street is so affecting because it reverses many dominant narratives and images of the intimidation and predation of women in public spaces. This unsettles many of the received ideas that have crystallised around gendered power in public space and invites us to imagine a world in which these relations could be reconfigured.
Shadee Abdi and Bernadette Marie Calafell characterise the liminal space of this film as potentially utopian in that it represents a form of female power that challenges patriarchal violence.6 Additionally, the film also represents the Girl forging relationships with other women like Atti and nonviolent men like Arash, which gestures towards a further utopian "sense of hope for the future"7 in which social change within her community is possible. It is fitting, then, that it is the liminal figure of the girl monster that instigates the necessary actions for this metamorphosis to take place. Thus, Amirpour creates a cinematic world where we can imagine a girl walking home alone at night in such a way that is not only transgressive but also transformative.