Are You A Good Boy? Subverting the Masculine Western in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Are You A Good Boy? Subverting the Masculine Western in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

With stylish, seductive design and a beguiling protagonist, Ana Lily Amirpour’s curious thriller announces itself as a game-changer. Worlds away from the traditional Western but still deeply connected to the genre, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night takes hold of the tropes and reclaims them as brand new. Anahit Behrooz investigates how Amirpour does it.

The first time we see Girl, the eponymous protagonist of Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, she is a silent, veiled silhouette gazing intently into a distant car where Saeed, a pimp and drug dealer is assaulting Atti, a local sex worker. A split-second later, just as Saeed looks up, she vanishes. The next time they meet, the encounter will end in bloodshed: Girl will bite her sharp teeth down on Saeed’s finger, severing it at the root before wreaking vengeance on his exposed neck. A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is often hailed as “the first Iranian vampire Western”, and it lives up to this daring assertion in every bloodsoaked, dusty scene. Telling the tale of a lone female vampire who stalks the streets of the eerie, fictional Bad City looking for men to prey on, Amirpour’s debut feature draws upon a myriad of stylistic and generic influences, from Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns to the German expressionist stylings of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, reworking and reforming these predecessors at every turn.

It’s little surprise, then, that the majority of reviews upon the film’s release commented on Amirpour’s intentionally referential style. Nearly as intertextual as the film itself, the critical response is filled with cinematic allusions: The Guardian views Amirpour as part of the “the hipsterised vampire genre of Jim Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara”, The Washington Post positions the film as “closer to the noir sensibility of Let the Right One In than the pop-horror of Twilight, while Vulture sums it up as “old-school Americana given a Persian twist”. These reviews define A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night through familiarity – revealing the extent to which film criticism is dependent on and perpetuates the cinematic canon – yet their drive-by comparisons suggest a superficial inheritance rather than a deliberate reckoning with the politics of the Western and vampire genres. Amirpour’s intertextuality is obvious and methodical, yet the lightness afforded to it in reviews – a female, Iranian “version” –  indicates a passivity at odds with its bold vision. Yet Amirpour’s film becomes much richer when weight is given to this intertextuality, to how the filmmaker plays with genre not merely as a stylistic twist but as an active rewriting, repurposing, and recovery of traditionally male and Western cinema. 


Given the numerous scenes of fang-baring and blood-sucking, it’s easy to see how the film plays with vampiric conventions. It is the Western half of its epithet that is far more subtle, but perhaps most subversive. Defined by the American Film Institute as “a genre of films set in the American West that embodies the spirit, the struggle and the demise of the new frontier,” the Western is one of cinema’s most American and masculinised genres. Although the AFI’s definition is ungendered, only the swiftest glance at the genre’s history is needed to reveal its deeply masculine roots. Populated by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Redford, Westerns almost always centre on men, and in particular on a brand of toxic masculinity founded on ideologies of individualism (such as the lone gunman trope), white supremacy, (through the villainising and dehumanising of Native people) and misogyny – with female characters existing solely to enable narratives of male heroism. 

Through her subversive characterisation of both setting and the eponymous Girl, Amirpour deliberately picks apart these hyper-masculine traits in order to consider how the Western’s framework can be reclaimed to tell other stories. Much as the traditional Western is concerned with space, Amirpour focuses on her environment, reforming the half settled, semi-lawless frontier landscape into a bleak urban badlands of oil derricks plumbing the land and deserted streets where exploitation and crime run rife. Unlike the colonial masculine landscape of the Western, however, where every inch of a supposedly hostile landscape is negotiated and exploited by white male pioneers in search of the American Dream, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night centres firmly on the gendered implications of navigating space in Bad City, the title itself highlighting the titular character’s movement through an unwelcome space, a not-home. This threat experienced by women outside the safety of their private spaces looms throughout: in the scene where we first meet Girl, Atti is picked up by Saeed on a deserted street corner, while Girl herself is similarly approached by Saeed in a dark street, only gaining the upper hand thanks to her vampiric fangs. 


Elsewhere, the very materiality of the constructed urban space others female existence: a road sign – reminiscent of deer warnings – features a woman in a chador, while a poster outside a corner shop shows a similarly faceless woman, with the question “Is this you? Call right now” emblazoned across it, fostering an uncanny atmosphere and manifesting the unsettling, vulnerable experience of moving through patriarchal spaces as a woman. This sense of unbelonging contrasts sharply with Girl’s home – a basement flat plastered with punk posters, magazine cuttings and record sleeves where she dances freely and sits naked in her bathtub, her chador cast aside. 

A clear response to the lone gunslinger/vigilante character popularised by Wayne and Eastwood, the supernatural Girl metes out her own lawless brand of justice, seeking out men – namely Saeed and Hossein, a pitiable heroin addict who nevertheless forcibly shoots up Atti despite her protests – who have harmed women, and sucking their blood dry. Existing on the fringes of society and interacting only with her victims and Arash, Hossein’s romantic yet disillusioned son who she falls for, Girl is not just a female play on the vigilante type, but an active questioning of how feminist justice – and specifically an Iranian feminist justice – can be imagined and executed.

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In her vengeful tracking and murder of both Saeed and Hossein, Girl is framed alone, veiled, and facing the camera, mirroring the posture of Eastwood’s infamous Man With No Name in the Dollars Trilogy. This face-on, isolated confrontation underscores both Girl’s defiance of the violence these men present, and her dislocation from broader systems of justice that do not protect women as she can. Her chador serves partly (alongside crystallised sugar stirrers instead of whiskey, and oil pumps instead of cattle) to reinforce the film’s Iranian interest – this is a film focused on Iranian oppression and feminist resistance –  and partly to echo the vigilante’s indispensable cowboy garb and gun belt. Also mimicking Dracula’s dramatic cape, the veil becomes part of her armour, and demonstrates how such markers of dominance – the wearing of the veil in Iran is involuntary and enforced by the state – can be mobilised and weaponised against male violence. 

In doing so, Amirpour reconfigures the very nature of the Western’s violence, swapping Eastwood’s iconic desert standoff at the end of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Wayne’s shooting of Native Americans from a distance in Stagecoach for something more personal and angry – a close-up, hands-on killing of men who hurt women. Through the Girl’s blood lust for the violent Saeed and Hossein, Amirpour elevates the individualism and white masculinity of the Western to a tale of female solidarity and retribution. “Are you a good boy?” croons the Girl, cornering a boy in the street. Forget the Western’s American Dream, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a fantasy of female creative anger.

Anahit Behrooz (@anahitrooz) is an arts journalist based in Edinburgh. She currently works as events editor at The Skinny, with words in The List, The Skinny, and Culture Trip. She likes beautiful films about women, old bookshops, and Dan Levy’s eyebrows.

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