It is hard to discuss this film without giving bits of it away, so I’m splitting this discussion into two: Read before and Read after. If you don’t mind some advance knowledge of what the film is about, both are safe to read. If you prefer to come at this completely unaware, then only read the first section.
Sexy, creepy, suspenseful, funny. If you haven’t heard much about Amirpour’s debut film out of the festival circuit, just trust that it is worth seeing. Her feature is a finely crafted, slow-burn horror film, in black and white no less, that echos many other stories, but has a flavor all its own.
This movie is wonderfully unique, not the least of which is because it is Iranian. Culturally it is both familiar and foreign, adding interesting levels to the viewing. Like The Babadook and Borgman, it is focused much more on the psychological, but this particular film also has many more moments of traditional horror in it. The result displays a capability in using story-telling to achieve fear rather than eliciting jumps and squeals by just using splatter and cheap surprises.
As one of her primary signatures, Amirpour allows us to linger on moments so that we can see the change in the characters as well as consider the implications. Nothing is fast in this film. Everything is done with deliberation and intent. There is no forgiveness, only choice.
The cast is split between well-known and little-known actors. The leads being more in the latter group, but still very capable.
Vand (Argo) has a quiet strength throughout the story. Literally. She has very few spoken lines, but manages to have you understand everything through her eyes and spare movements. Opposite her, the less-known Marandi creates a survivor struggling to make a better life, but who keeps making bad choices. The tension between the two of them for moral supremacy and acceptance is a great tango.
In smaller, but integral roles, are a number of well- known faces, if not yet well-known names. Marnò (House of Cards, Blacklist) delivers a quiet, run-down prostitute that could break your heart, if you weren’t sure by her own performance that there was a reason she was stuck in that life by her own making. And, even then, she is a walking tragedy you can’t help but love. Coupled with Manesh (How I Met Your Mother), we get a dark mirror of the main couple as well as catalysts needed to drive the story. Rains (Flashforward) adds his own, intense attitude to the mix as well.
And, of course, there is the cat. Possibly the best trained feline I’ve seen on screen. And it isn’t just a cheap prop, Amirpour uses the animal to perfection (couldn’t resist) to make points in the story.
At its heart, this is a romance. An odd and dark romance, to be sure, but a romance nonetheless. Whatever Amirpour delivers next, I am looking forward to sampling. She has a wonderfully unique and confident cinematic voice.
The reason for this split in conversation is centered solely around the nature of the Girl. I went into the film not knowing who or what she was, which isn’t revealed until about 20 minutes into the story. That surprise is not something I wanted to spoil for those who care. It isn’t as dramatic a surprise as, say, The Sixth Sense reveal (45 minutes in) was, but being blind to the specifics definitely gave me an extra appreciation of the story. I wanted to preserve that for anyone else who may not have been aware.
I don’t know if it was the black and white stock or just the opening scene which reminded me a great deal of i Vitelloni, but if the young Fellini had decided to make a horror flick, this might have been the result. Or, for that matter, if he had decided to do Innocent Blood decades before it was conceived. The movie also echos Only Lovers Left Alive in fabulous ways. And yet it is none of these things; it simply shows the wide cinematic taste and education of Amirpour as writer and director.
But it isn’t just the horror elements and Amirpour’s fresh approach to the issues. There are levels to this film beyond the surface. Metaphors even. For instance, I’ll never look at an oil rig the same way again. She unabashedly equates vampirism with sucking the life blood from the earth, ascribing the same kind of deadly intent upon the oil companies and governments specifically, and humanity as a whole, by association. And, more impressively, she manages this pretty much with one or two short shots.
Vampires have been done to … well, death, of late. It is, however, encouraging to see stories emerging again that focus on the philosophical and emotional references that Stoker and others began with rather than simply the gouts of blood and unbridled ego that have dominated the genre since the creatures materialized on screen. Vampires are scary (or used to be), but it is because of what they represent in ourselves, our desires and how we would change over centuries of life. It is their existence as metaphor, and the odd allure of them if ever a reality. Sure: teeth, fangs, strength, soulessness, but that is where it starts, not where it should end. Amirpour plays with all of these things, but never so much as to drag down her story or to manipulate her characters.
OK, if you read this before, you only have yourself to blame. It won’t ruin the film, that I promise. But now do go sit down and watch it! If you waited to read it after, congratulations on your self-control. And, I hope, it added some additional considerations to your viewing.