Film Review: The Bad Batch

This visually impressive dystopian western-thriller establishes Ana Lily Amirpour’s filmmaking chops and unique artistry in genre filmmaking further, even though it falls short of delivering an engaging story.
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Even in today’s bountiful panorama of films, TV series, streaming-service originals and other evolving forms of filmed entertainment, a debut as thematically confident and visually stunning as Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a dazzling rarity. In her 2014 horror-thriller-western-drama, writer-director Amirpour seamlessly blended the aforementioned genres inside her lean, feminist film and followed the transgressions of a lonely, vengeful female vampire equipped with a skateboard while concealed under a hijab in the fictional Iranian town of “Bad City.”

Surely, there is no shortage of “bad” to go around in today’s world. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Amirpour has followed her black-and-white thriller with a dystopian effort that puts the bad front and center in the title. With The Bad Batch, we are once again in the presence of an isolated female character, guided by her smarts and survival instincts in a post-apocalyptic world of sorts. The stylistic assuredness that made Amirpour’s debut a startling achievement is present in her sophomore feature too, as is her knack for blending various genres. If only the story of The Bad Batch, at times as flat and dry as the world depicted in it, were also on par with the film’s visual richness.

Our protagonist is Arlen (Suki Waterhouse, tough and melancholic in equal measure), who crosses the fenced Texan border at the start of the film and steps into a land that is no longer the concern of the U.S. (A road sign tells us as much.) About to join other rotten souls that are booted out of civilization, Arlen walks the infertile soil only to be captured by a clan of cannibals who feast on her right arm and leg. Using her smarts and resourcefulness, she somehow manages to escape her captors, who keep other half-eaten humans chained up in their food stock.

With the help of a wanderer played by Jim Carrey, Arlen finds her way to the town of Comfort, which operates like a makeshift colony in a setting out of any old western, except with pop-up food trucks instead of banks or saloons. Comfort is run by a godlike man called Dream (Keanu Reeves), who doesn’t shy away from reminding the inhabitants they are all part of the bad batch. The plot thickens when Arlen kills a woman, decides to care for the woman’s surviving young daughter and becomes a target of the husband-father Miami Man (Jason Momoa), who happens to be among the cannibal clan that ate Arlen’s limbs.

Still with me? Well, it all sounds a lot more confusing than it actually is. For the most part, the largely dialogue-free The Bad Batch (similar to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night in that regard) progresses in quite simple terms and the conflicts at its center never really take off to make one care about the characters’ motivations or the outcomes of their actions. This also partly stems from Amirpour’s insistence on not at any point deepening the history or believability of the world of the film, which she hurriedly propels the viewer into right from the start. Nevertheless, her Mad Max-meets-Wall-E landscape is filled with inventive details, Lyle Vincent’s gorgeous cinematography is captivating and thoughtful with picturesque framing and use of negative space, and the upbeat soundtrack, as detached from the film as it is at times, is plenty of fun. Plus, Trump-era politics that lurk in every corner are timely and sufficiently creepy. In one scene, we are told by yet another road sign, “This is Not Real.” Perhaps that is what we mean when we say, “This is not normal,” regarding today’s political landscape. Hats off to Amirpour for stylishly playing with those big ideas and proactively sniffing trouble in the atmosphere. Her The Bad Batch isn’t quite the success I hoped for from the maker of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but it convinced me she is an accomplished filmmaker with a bright future in genre filmmaking, who can handle scale and scope and make weird and gory look good. She just needs to elevate her voice on the page.

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