The Bad Batch is candy for your ears and eyeballs, but contains little nutrition regarding storyline. But maybe that’s all you’re looking for in a movie?
Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, famed for her acclaimed Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), The Bad Batch lacks the simplistic avant-garde charm of her earlier masterpiece. It fails, perhaps because of its larger production value and its ambitious attempt to achieve the sublimely surreal, whilst sadly only managing to conjure a sonic and visual treat that doesn’t captivate intellectually.
Certainly, the film is an Instagram-filtered carnival of pop-colour and grungy audio, but unfortunately this hyped artistry is backed by a plot that meanders purposelessly through the desert, just like its female protagonist.
Suki Waterhouse, who plays the lead, Arlen, gives a stellar performance amidst an exciting cast.
The plot serves up lashings of good-old-fashioned, Texan-cannibal hospitality, which Arlen learns in the first few minutes of the film, quite literally, costs an arm and a leg. Armed with a gun we then follow this limping heroine through an American junkyard desert landscape full of broken electronics and faded iconography, which the director herself describes as a ‘magical, desert-fairytale badland’.
Amirpour seems to have channeled various other films subconsciously in her writing and art style; the brutal mutilation of Arlen emotionally parallels ‘The Bride’ (Uma Thurman in Kill Bill), whilst the setting itself evokes Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), or Jodorowsky’s El Topo (1970). The confusing mix of horror and genre defying weirdness also reminded me of the clumsy but fascinating John Carpenter desert horror movie The Hills Have Eyes (1977), which also suffers for not really knowing what it is, and lacking a sense of direction.
In interviews discussing the film, the Iranian director has said she is ‘attracted to the corners of things’, which perhaps explains the film’s lack of a central focus.
Thriller definitely seems to be a mismatched genre description for this film, in fact, the trailer and early promotion material in some ways act as emotional clickbait. The film’s initial body-horror scenes set up false expectations for what is to come. Not only is this not a horror film, it has a genre vagueness which leaves the viewer with an unanswered sense of dissatisfaction. Even the title of the film is unpleasantly ambiguous; who exactly are the bad batch? Do we even care?
According to Keanu Reeves’ character ’The Dream’ (a sexually seductive cult leader who wears pedophile sunglasses and hosts raves on giant boomboxes in the desert) — the ‘Bad Batch’ are the undesirables, the unwanted misfits who don’t quite fit into society, thus destined to roam Amirpour’s post apocalyptic dream junkyard in the wastelands of America. Amirpour’s writing is not quite up to par; nor does The Bad Batch convey the sublime level of surrealism that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night Does (which respectively, achieved Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 96% and 42%).
This awkward dialogue is typified in the scene where Reeves’ The Dream and Waterhouse’s Arlen meet:
Suki Waterhouse: “It’s a tomato.”
Keanu Reeves: “First it was a seed. You take care of a garden. It takes care of you back. You feed it. It feeds you.”
This campy philosophising may be the emotional core of Armipour’s narrative; it’s hard to tell. The dialogue promises depth, but only delivers buzz concepts and disconnected imagery, which like the relationships in the narrative, don’t fit together into a coherent or satisfying whole.
There is another strange cameo by Jim Carrey, who plays a mute, almost unrecognisable, bearded hermit who takes Arlen to the makeshift town called ‘Comfort’, where she is given a prosthetic leg, drops acid at a desert rave, and watches Keanu Reeves’ character DJ on top of a giant boombox straight from Burning Man Festival. The scenes of Arlen taking acid are quite powerful, second only to the opening cannibal scenes in their dramatic effect. The broad time-lapse shots of the rolling sandy hills and Milky Way galaxy tumbling overhead are quite breathtaking.
Dizzying controversies have meanwhile muddied the waters of the already swampy reception to The Bad Batch. Amirpour was notoriously attacked as racist, for the presentation of African American characters in the film by a jaded audience member, who then took the battle to Twitter. To be fair to Armipour, these accusations seem to be extremely misguided, who displays nothing particularly untoward in her eccentric characterisation here.
There was also the scandal surrounding Suki Waterhouse, who recently became the next victim in a long line of celebrities whose nude photos were leaked to the internet via their Android devices. Some may be forgiven for seeing Suki as an exploited, sexualised piece of eye-candy in the film, as a greater portion of the cinematography focuses on her voluptuous figure. The film would probably sit well on the shelf with Boxing Helena (1993) — for those with acrotomophilia (an amputee fetish). For the most part though, I think this is very deliberate on the part of the director, portraying her lead female as a piece of meat, both literally and sexually — to be consumed by the cannibal male audience.
If anything, the film is successful as a personal liberal statement of the director, about being a woman in a man’s world, and depicting a diverse range of American characters. Does it work as an engaging narrative? Probably not.
The entire film was shot in 28 days.