REVIEW: 'The Bad Batch', a dystopian cannibal romance lacking some all-important bite
As hard as it is to get a first feature made (and then fêted by critics and audiences), you have to feel for a breakout director when they release their second film. All of a sudden, there’s a weight of expectation and comparisons to the previous work. Maybe there’s even a few snarky, premature comments that the director is a one-hit wonder. All of it is pretty unfair, especially when you think about the dozens of movies the director may have ahead of them.
This unique kind of sophomore-film scrutiny came to mind at a recent festival screening of The Bad Batch, the new film from Ana Lily Amirpour. Amirpour grabbed attention after her black-and-white vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night emerged from the 2014 festival circuit as a resounding favourite. Now the unenviable task of holding that attention falls to The Bad Batch; a film that, like its predecessor, borrows traits from genre films while trying to offer something more complex than a struggle between good and evil.
What kind of movie is Amirpour riffing on this time? Dystopian fantasy is the closest answer, albeit with a gruesome detail. The film imagines a version of the United States where undesirable people (common criminals, drug lords, the mentally ill, etc.) are branded as part of the Bad Batch and cast out of civilization to wander the wasteland and fend for themselves. Amirpour leaves the qualifications for a prospective Bad Batch-er vague, but the mind reels with who she envisions as the power figures in this reality. Is the Bad Batch a draconian policy by a Trumpian political leader? Or would we find an alternate-universe Trump suffering - or thriving - as an outcast himself?
Either way, without any resources, two distinct societies have developed: the loosely cooperative town of Comfort (flyers that proclaim “Find Comfort” are scattered throughout the desert) or the community known as the Bridge, where residents have descended into cannibalism. That, and bodybuilding: apparently Amirpour has a dim view of protein-supplement fans; in her world, getting ripped is a function of how many people you can eat.
Our point of entry into this hellscape is Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a recent arrival - her specific crime is ambiguous - who is promptly captured by the cannibals and gives an arm and a leg (yes, literally) to get free. Finding herself dropped off in Comfort, Arlen must find a place for herself amongst the rest of the Bad Batch, despite a sequence of events that draws her back to a particular cannibal named Miami Man (Jason Momoa).
As grimly fascinating as the concept is, there’s simply not enough substance to any of the core characters to bind everything together. Arlen has no real goal other than survival, which is made less compelling since we rarely see her fending for herself. She either has everything provided for in Comfort or she’s being marched around by Miami Man. For his part, Miami is a cipher: we know he’s unrepentant about eating people, but yet he seems to care for Arlen, if only because she might be able to lead him to his missing daughter. This ends up defusing the suspense that we should feel whenever Miami is around, and makes some of Arlen's decisions later in the film thoroughly frustrating.
Much of the film takes the form of long silences in the dialogue, while Amirpour’s “dope soundtrack” plays out. Combined with the extreme subject matter, this might be engaging enough - if the film came out and admitted to being an interconnected series of music videos. Instead, the closest we come to figuring out a real character motivation is with the Dream (Keanu Reeves, decked out in his 70s porn-star finest) a drug lord and head honcho in Comfort with a harem of pregnant wives. The Dream gives an expectedly power-mad speech about filling the world with little versions of himself, but it manages to stand out in contrast to Arlen’s blank slate.
For me, some of the best material in The Bad Batch comes in the glimpses of the wasteland communities. Comfort, in particular, is overflowing with remnants of society who each embody different scraps of American iconography. There’s young skateboarders, aged food-cart operators, and someone constantly dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Young and old, they all get together at night to consume hallucinogenic drugs and lose themselves in an EDM party. In this warped vision of America, we get some of the most layered messaging in the film - all without a principal character in sight.
Much of this would be unsustainable without some humour to break things up, but Amirpour opts for an awkward strain of black comedy. Maybe it’s because there’s not enough weight to the characters, but I was rarely sure whether I should be laughing or creeped out, and so the jokier moments aren’t as rewarding as they were in a film like Spike Jonze’s Her, which struck a beautiful balance between duelling emotions.
For a movie so full of memorable idiosyncrasies, it’s too bad that they don’t amount to a more watchable experience. It’s as though Amirpour collected a bunch of semi-solid ideas around a central theme and tossed them out on their own, much like the people drifting through the desert in the film. Sometimes a delightful free-form movie can emerge from an approach like that (Boyhood or Tree of Life), but other times the ideas squabble amongst themselves (The Counselor).
While I don’t doubt that Amirpour likely has great things ahead of her as a writer-director, The Bad Batch feels more like the kind of film you catch up with once someone has built up their filmography a bit more. Its symbolism and odd flashes of dry wit are undone by more than a few missteps - but who knows, they may be choices that will offer some helpful context about Amirpour in the years to come.
The Bad Batch gets two stars out of four.
Have you seen The Bad Batch? If so, what did you think? Is it easier to pick out the director’s strengths with two films under her belt? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers!