The Bad Batch is not playing around. Cannibals are preparing for dinner inside of 10 minutes of the opening shot. Shortly after that is the most interesting use of a skateboard yet. Director Ana Lily Amirpour does not ease the viewer into her apocalyptic vision.
The United States of someplace awful (perhaps,I don’t know, say 3 years into the Trump regime?) has partitioned part of Texas as a place to exile those found not fit for civil society. It’s a blasted swath of desert that doubles as a hazardous waste dump and is affectionately known as the bad batch. Bad people are sent there through an intake process that is reminiscent of Snake Plissken being inducted into New York. One would not be surprised to see him walking up out of the heat shimmer, or Max Rockatansky for that matter.
Think of The Bad Batch as Mad Max meets Escape From New York or perhaps that time Burning Man went bad.
Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is a smallish woman who is locked in at the outset. We never learn why. She soon meets up with Miami Man(Jason Momoa) and his hellish little family. Miami Man was cast out for being an undocumented Cuban immigrant. So, yes, he carves people up for the grill but he also loves his daughter and serves his tribe. He’s a charmer. Momoa in the role does shine with nuance and depth. Miami Man is not villain or hero. The notion of heroes and villains gets slaughtered and served up with cactus fruit in the hungry desert. Arlen escapes (well, most of her does) and is rescued by people from a cargo container fortress called Comfort. Comfort has civilization and safety, after a fashion.
“…Mad Max meets Escape From New York.”
Miami Man and Arlen are not your typical movie couple and this isn’t your typical Cuban Cannibal meets I-Hate-You-All sociopath romance. Jim Carrey is unrecognizable in a non-speaking part as the Silent Bob of the Salton Sea. Giovanni Ribisi plays another nutter wandering around the encampment spouting seeming nonsense that turns out to be meta-signals to the viewer.
I’m loving Keanu Reeves career at this point. Serious acting wasn’t his gig so now he plays incarnations of human failings. In this case, he’s The Dream: MC, Guru, and spiritual doppelgänger of David Koresh. Looking like Jim Jones, Keanu is pitch perfect. The best snarky humor happens around The Dream and his entourage of hottie bodyguards / sister wives. The pregnant woman with a t-shirt declaring “The Dream is inside me” for example. There’s a lot of clever metaphorical wordplay. Even the title… one letter swapped and it’s The Bad Bitch, which Arlen certainly is.
Some of The Bad Batch really works but the film tries to layer social commentary over its violence and is only moderately successful. It’s trying too hard to show us something about something, neither of which is very clear. A message in allegory like reality sucks for many but some people are (literally) living The Dream in Comfort? That’s a bit on the nose. This is a flawed movie that sometimes chooses style over substance.
Boy howdy does this reality suck… when you’re holding people captive so you can eat them a bit at a time… would anyone do that? Would we not rather die with some dignity? But, hark, there’s another metaphor capering for attention in the foreground here about people consuming one another in this blighted place. For you see: here and now and we of this time are in the actual bad batch and it’s because we make it that way. Preachy, even if it’s true. Especially if it’s true.
“The vision is audacious and often beautiful…”
One major gaff in the story is a complete lack of sexual threat that would be pervasive in the real world. Arlen is a 110 lb woman surrounded by large muscular men (Momoa is huge! Where is Miami Man getting the 5000 calories he’d need every day to sustain his muscle mass? He’d have to eat a lot of people) You get the feeling that Arlen might die but not that she’ll be taken advantage of sexually. As we know, in cultural extremis sexual violence is generally the first act of men exerting unrestrained power and bent on keeping it.
Amirpour has no fucks to give and she pulls no punches. The vision is audacious and often beautiful with desert cinematography and very adept musical choices (listen for Die Antwoord). The wasteland is vast and scary. The flow of the film peaks when the characters aren’t talking and we are treated to the visually stunning EDM, ecstacy, and dance fueled rave of The Dream in Comfort.
Though it misfires significantly it is still a beautiful mess that hangs with you for some time, lingering in your mind like the aftereffects of a hard night partying.
The Bad Batch (2017) Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Starring Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Suki Waterhouse, Jayda Fink, Giovanni Ribisi.
6 out of 10