The Bad Batch (2016)
Perhaps file this one under ‘apocalyptic arthouse.’ Having made a hell of a splash in arthouse circles with her Iranian feminist vampire flick, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), director Ana Lily Amirpour followed it up with this game but misshapen capitalism metaphor, which takes tropes from Mad Max (1979), Escape From New York (1981), and several points in between, sticks them in a blender, and pours them out into the Texan desert to bake in a series of long, lingering, artfully shot scenes.
The ‘bad batch’ of the title are society’s rejects, outcast from America and forced to live as scavengers and predators in a sun-blasted desert where cults and cannibals hold sway. Into this world is thrust a young woman, Arlen (model Suki Waterhouse), who quickly runs afoul of some of the denizens and has her right arm and leg summarily lopped off and eaten to the strains of Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants’ (now that’s just salting the wound).
Arlen proves to be more resourceful and brutal than her appearance suggests, quickly escaping and carving out a place for herself in a ramshackle town called Comfort (the film’s symbolism is pretty on the nose). As the story progresses, she must contend with two key threats: the musclebound, cannibalistic Miami Man (Jason Momoa), who’s looking for his missing daughter, and messianic cult leader The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who holds power over Comfort.
There’s more to the plot than that and also, paradoxically, somewhat less. Amirpour is not interested in constructing a propulsive story and, for all that The Bad Batch has plenty of violence, body horror, drug use, and the odd flash of nudity, it frames these instances of gratuitousness in a deliberately soporific, slowly paced, episodic narrative. The Bad Batch wants to show us things, and give us the time to think about them, rather than drag us helter-skelter through its bizarre scavenger world.
Whether you’re up for that or not is your call, but the cast certainly is. In addition to Momoa, Reeves, and Waterhouse, Jim Carrey, The Truman Show (1998), turns up as a crazed hermit, while Diego Luna, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), plays The Dream’s in-house DJ, and Giovanni Ribisi … well, perhaps he just wandered onto set one day. That’s a pretty high profile ensemble for a willfully opaque artsy thinkpiece.
Still, what’s it thinking about? Capitalism, it seems to me, and the predatory nature thereof. With its apocalyptic, frontier-like culture and general lawlessness, the setting of The Bad Batch is a kind of libertarian fallen paradise. Everyone is hustling, and everyone is preying on each other, with the omnipresent threat of cannibalism the most obvious symbolic signpost of that. It’s weirdly, horribly egalitarian — the stakes and (lack of) rules in this nameless place are known to all, and most of the characters seem to accept their station in this rather cutthroat chain of being.
What’s interesting then, is that there’s almost no judgment leveled at the characters. If everyone is a predator concerned for their own survival, then there can be no villains. We, the audience, bring our own preconceptions and prejudices to the table, but Amirpour’s film either rejects them out of hand or at the very least forces us to scrutinize them. Arlen, our nominal hero, commits cold-blooded murder. Miami Man, introduced as a villain, is a loving father and a gifted artist, and our attitude towards him is gently manipulated as the film progresses. The Dream remains largely antagonistic, but that’s mainly because he runs a cult — in the cruel free market of The Bad Batch slavery/ theft of autonomy is the only real sin (there’s that libertarian subtext again).
It’s a canny approach, but it does raise another barrier for viewers used to more straight-laced hero/ villain dichotomies. Still, ‘barriers’ to ingress seems to be the name of the game here. The Bad Batch at times feels like a self-appointed barometer of cool: either you’re hip to what it’s laying down or you’re not, and if you fall into the latter category, the film isn’t particularly interested in helping you transition into the former. That’s either brave or obnoxious, depending on where you’re standing — gun to my head, I think it’s more brave than not. The Bad Batch is very much its own thing, and its pronounced indifference to commerciality is worth celebrating.
3 / 5 – Good
Reviewed by Travis Johnson