Cast: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Jim Carrey
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Running time: 2 hours
by Jericho Cerrona
Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour is the real deal; a formally audacious stylist whose images capture a sensual, art-punk knowingness. Her debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was rapturously received by critics, and for good reason. Though it flaunted its undeniable influences (spaghetti westerns, 50s teen coming-of-age movies, 80s-era Jim Jarmusch, Francis Ford Coppola's Rumble Fish, atmospheric horror, among others), it still felt very much like the work of a distinctive artist. Ultimately, what held that picture back from greatness was a sort of winking hipness keeping any emotional or psychological resonance at bay. Of course, this was clearly by design, and the strength of Amirpour's aesthetic--gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, slow motion montage set to pop songs, a clear fondness for classic cinema-- more than made up for her weaknesses as a writer.
For her sophomore effort, Amirpour doubles down on the 1980s-inflected post-punk kitsch in a concerted effort at cult movie status and nearly achieves it, if only the strain wasn't so obvious. There's a glibness to The Bad Batch which undermines what could have been a macabre satire about U.S. border control politics or even an emotionally charged survival tale about one woman's fight to dismantle a post- apocalyptic caste system. When we first meet Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a drifter sent off into the Texas desert after being disowned by the United States as a "bad batch", she chomps down on a leftover sandwich before being captured by cannibals, who cut off one of her arms and legs. During the film's first 20 minutes, Amirpour relies primarily on widescreen visual compositions of the vast desert landscapes and intricate sound design in order to immerse the audience into her dystopian world. This plays to her strengths, since The Bad Batch is, if anything, a testament to cinema's power at creating a sense of place and atmosphere. When Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” plays in the background during the scene where Arlen's limbs are hacked off, Amirpour synthesizes violence with pop-culture irony, edging the tone into Quentin Tarantino territory.
Unlike Tarantino, however, who understands how to write dialogue to match his visual aesthetic, Amirpour seems entirely uninterested in actual characterization. Of course, there's a clear satirical bent at play here; from the muscle-bound weight lifters, skateboard punks, and Burning Man EDM club kids wandering about, but the film's inability to fill out more than simply the corners of this milieu speaks to Amirpour's shakiness as a narrative storyteller. As Arlen escapes from the cannibals and wanders back and forth between their outpost and a community called "Comfort", overseen by a New Age guru named The Dream (Keanu Reeves), The Bad Batch becomes a take on how even the undesirable dregs of society feel the need to separate into groups with their own ideals and rituals. There's a bad-ass cannibal named Miami Man (Jason Momoa) who plays hunter-hunted games with Arlen throughout, an unrecognizable Jim Carrey pushing a shopping cart as a bedraggled mute homeless man, and a half-dressed Giovanni Ribisi scampering around as a mentally unstable misfit, but no one here truly makes an impact because the film isn't concerned with the ways human beings actually interact with these environments. Instead, Amirpour has instructed her actors to adopt weird accents and stilted line deliveries, perhaps as a nod to cult movie preparedness.
Arlen's journey as an outsider who longs for revenge against the ones who took away her appendages is surprisingly muted here, with Waterhouse unconvincingly playing the stoic heroine as she crawls around the Texas wasteland. Had she been given an emotional or psychologically resonant reaction to her situation, the tug-of-war with Momoa's misunderstood cannibal could have lingered. Sadly, despite Amirpour's admirable visual imagination, The Bad Batch unwisely transforms from a dystopian nightmare about the have and have-nots into a quasi-romance between a girl living on the wrong side of the tracks and the man who tried to eat her.