'The Bad Batch'
A few years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour made quite a name for herself with the delightfully offbeat ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night‘. Billed as a “feminist Iranian vampire Western” and boasting a deadpan Jim Jarmusch influence, there was nothing else quite like the film on screens before or since. Now she’s back with a budget and getting all apocalyptic in ‘The Bad Batch’. Even if Amirpour’s sophomore effort isn’t quite as strong as her debut, the movie confirms that she’s a filmmaker with wild visions and integrity worth following.
Set in one of those not-too-distant futures that may as well be the present, ‘The Bad Batch’ is based in the USA’s newfangled way of dealing with unwanteds. There’s a fence (shockingly) and those considered undesirable for various crimes and mental illnesses are shoved inside and forced to fend for themselves in a massive desert filled with junkyard remnants of 1990s culture. Our protagonist is a young woman named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse). She’s just been dropped into the lawless land, and before her first day is through, cannibals claim an arm and a leg for supper. She manages to escape and, thanks to the help of a beardless drifter (Jim Carrey, of all people), finds her way to a strange community in the middle of a wasteland. It’s run by Keanu Reeves playing some sort of bizarre cult leader offering (far too familiar) empty promises of dreams and happiness. At the same time, Jason Momoa plays a cannibalistic bodybuilder with a daughter he loves deeply. Eventually, his and Arlen’s stories will cross and that’s around when the movie will stop working.
If ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ proved that Amirpour has an extraordinary gift for atmosphere, world-building, and character, ‘The Bad Batch’ confirms those gifts tenfold. The low-fi black-and-white-and-shadows of her debut are replaced by blindingly bright colors and gorgeously crafted junky production design. Arlen’s world is comprised of discarded goods. These are characters left behind by society building their own world out of the trash of the old world. ‘Mad Max’ is an obvious influence, but Amirpour’s film is her own. Much like ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’, she takes her influence to a personal place. In this case, it’s all in the service of a very bleak portrait of humanity, where the unwanted are discarded, where people literally feed on each other to survive, and where leaders offer empty promises of paradise to those who will never know it. Timely? Sure, but also fairly timeless as well.
Within the stylized and painful world, a few memorable characters and performances emerge. Keanu Reeves in particular sinks his teeth into his snake oil pervazoid cult leader with darkly comedic glee, while Jim Carrey is almost unrecognizable in an entirely silent performance that uses his elastic physicality to far stranger purpose than ever before.
Sadly, the protagonists aren’t nearly as interesting as the world they inhabit or the lunatics on the sidelines. Suki Waterhouse is a compelling lead, but (even if by design) remains so coolly distant that it’s hard to relate to anything in her beyond strength and pain. Jason Momoa cuts an imposing presence as always, but spends too much energy on his accent and not enough on his personality. By the time the episodic plot brings them together, it’s hard to care about their connection or direction. The film fizzles out when it narrows focus and slips away rather than nailing home its themes and narrative. It’s a shame to watch Amirpour’s script underwhelm, but at least the craft never disappoints.
‘The Bad Batch’ is a unique and downright bizarre little movie. Built into the film’s DNA is everything from allegorical sci-fi to body horror, social satire, and family bonding. It’s like a pop ’90s genre confection spat through a depressing art house vision. At its best, the way that Amirpour weaves together all of her varied ideas and visions is intoxicating, thought provoking, unsettling, and sickeningly funny. At worst, it’s confused and frustrating. Thankfully, the film is never boring or placid. This is a bold vision from a bold filmmaker, just one that isn’t quite satisfying. On the plus side, it confirms that Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most intriguing and exciting new filmmakers kicking around America. Hopefully she doesn’t lose any of her ambition while rising through the Hollywood machine, just some of her love of ambiguity for the sake of it.