Director Ana Lily Amirpour received almost universal acclaim for her genre bending debut film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s unlikely that The Bad Batch, her sophomore feature, will garner the same kind of praise. The film is no more conventional than her debut, but it quickly becomes clear that the film’s ideas are too familiar, too few, and spread too thin to feel substantial. The result isn’t disastrous, but it’s clear that even the most talented filmmakers can’t always escape the sophomore slump.
The film inhabits a dystopian world south of the Texas border, where undesirables are tagged “The Bad Batch” and expelled from America into a desert wasteland. Suki Waterhouse stars as Arlen, the newest Bad Batch to be tagged with a number behind her ear and dumped into the desert where she quickly runs afoul of a community of body building cannibals who relieve her of her arm and her leg before she’s able to escape. Arlen is picked up by a mute hermit, played by a distracting Jim Carrey, who delivers her to a safe community called Comfort. This all happens in the first fifteen or so minutes and with little to no dialog.
It’s a somewhat misleading opening to a film that quickly becomes ponderous and plodding. The film flash-forwards to five months later and Arlen now lives in Comfort where she has a fake leg and a bone to pick with the cannibals who took her real one. She leaves the safety of Comfort looking for vengeance and ends up returning with a little girl named Honey (Jayda Fink), not realizing that she’s the daughter of Miami Man, played by Jason Momoa, a cannibal painter, who then sets out for Comfort to get his daughter back. It all sounds more thrilling than it actually is.
The Bad Batch is more concerned with exploring big questions than it is with hitting plot points and building a cohesive narrative. The film’s ideas on moral relativism and objective meaning are interesting, but they aren’t nearly as original or clever as Amirpour would like us to believe. Without much else in the film to satisfy, The Bad Batch ultimately feels very thin and, by the end, tedious.
Any dystopian film is only as good as the world it builds and, despite an overwhelming amount of style, there isn’t much substance to the film’s wasteland. The film fails to create a cohesive value system or set of rules by which the world operates. In Comfort, hardly anyone seems to have a job, but they still use money. However, the people in the desert evidently don’t use money, because we see the hermit burning money to start a fire. Even the desert that separates the cannibal community from Comfort varies drastically in size depending on what is convenient for the plot. Sometimes it can be crossed on foot in a matter of hours; other times it takes days by motorcycle. With the world a bit of a mess, it’s nearly impossible to really establish the stakes and so nothing feels terribly important.
Not everything is a disaster though. Amirpour has assembled a better cast than this film deserves, with Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi, and Keanu Reeves all making appearances. Keanu Reeves positively nails his role as the de facto mayor of Comfort, a man who provides people with opiates while gathering a harem of women to impregnate to restart society. It’s a bonkers portrayal that features a brief, wonderful monolog about sewage. The film looks good too, and even though its vision of the future feels a little familiar, Lyle Vincent’s cinematography shines. Alex O’Flinn edits the film and makes strong choices that give the film a real sense of style. Perhaps the best thing about the film is its soundtrack which combines pop and electronic music to hypnotic effect.
Verdict: 2 out of 5
There’s a lot to admire about The Bad Batch, but there’s also a lot to be frustrated by. Ana Lily Amirpour’s sophomore film is nearly plotless and never quiet gathers its various bits into one cohesive world. The film touches on some really interesting ideas but they alone can’t stop the film from turning into an overlong slog. Amirpour is a definite talent, who builds films with an uncompromising lack of sentimentality that’s really admirable. Unfortunately, the film gets away from her, becoming a bunch of compelling pieces that don’t fit together. It might not be an apocalypse I’ll want return to, but is pretty at least.