The Bad Batch by Ana Lily Amirpour
You have to appreciate Ana Lily Amirpour’s confidence. Within the first ten minutes of The Bad Batch, her social critique by way of apocalyptic fantasia, our protagonist Arlen loses both an arm and a leg to a desert-dwelling band of cannibal bodybuilders. Hobbling the hero right off? Cannibal bodybuilders? Tank Girl this is not. We know we’re with a director who refuses to play it safe.
For reasons unexplained, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) has been exiled to a wasteland somewhere beyond the Texas border because the American authorities have deemed her to be “Bad Batch.” Deviant, criminal, poor, old, crazy — how one earns membership in this group is never defined, only implied. (A detail, among many, in this wild mashup of a movie that feels all too relevant.) Luckily, Arlen is not one to let a squad of Venice Beach rejects slowly dismember her. She escapes and finds her way to the more civilized community of Comfort led by The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a mellow-tongued, sybaritic demagogue with a troupe of pregnant, uzi-toting wives.
We pick up five months later. Arlen wears a scavenged prosthetic leg. Despite the trouble this poses, she’s constantly on the move, contrasting her to Comfort’s inhabitants who are content to languidly sprawl in the sun or dance at one of the Dream’s raves. We get the sense she doesn’t feel at home in Comfort. In one of her walkabouts through the unclaimed wastes, Arlen accidentally becomes the guardian of the daughter of the Miami Man (Jason Momoa, dreadfully miscast), a cannibal we briefly glimpsed in the opening sequence. His search for the child Miel (Jayda Fink) eventually brings him up against Arlen.
Yet, despite the film’s inventive premise, The Bad Batch has trouble gaining traction. The showdown between Arlen and the Miami Man seems secondary to the meandering tour we get of this new world as Arlen wanders through it. The collision of genres — western, post-apocalyptic dystopia, even romance – which can often infuse a work with vitality here prevents the film from focusing on any one point. Amirpour’s attempt to satirize our society’s toxic politics and corrupt economics never moves deeper than surface jokes. And while Arlen pointedly maintains a moral center through circumstances that would break most other people, she remains a cipher. Waterhouse plays her with a quiet detachment nearly as dry as the surrounding wasteland.
So why did I enjoy The Bad Batch? It’s an undeniable pleasure to watch. Wide establishing shots perfectly convey the dusty emptiness of the landscape, but don’t seem like rehashes of Sergio Leone (along with Jodorowsky’s El Topo, clearly another inspiration for The Bad Batch). Sharp colors create accents at unexpected moments. There’s also clever use of the detritus littering this world – junk ranging from dead TV’s lined up like tombstones, road-side marquees, jet plane fuselages, shopping carts, umbrellas, plastic bags, worn tires — broken, disused, re-purposed modern artifacts that call to mind Mad Max films, Max Headroom and the stories of J.G. Ballard.
It’s not as assured as Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but The Bad Batch marks the development of a stylist who isn’t afraid to go where a story takes her. Good things can be expected.