The Bad Batch (2016)
Ana Lily Amirpour
Suki Waterhouse (Arlen), Jason Momoa (Miami Man), Jayda Fink (Honey), Keanu Reeves (The Hermit), Giovanni Ribisi (The Screamer), Yolanda Ross (Maria)
Undefined (Totalitarian Government)
"I've got a question? Why are we out here? Just what are we doing in the middle of the goddamn desert tonight? That's right. That's right. You want that music that only Jimmy can make. Let me tell you something about Jimmy. You want to know why Jimmy's here? He's Bad Batch. Non-functioning member of society. That's what they told him. That's right. All of us here, we weren't good enough. Smart enough. Young enough. Healthy enough. Wealthy enough. Sane enough. Freaks. Parasites. This here is The Bad Batch. We ain't good. We're bad. Now there's only one rule here and it's this: It's time to wake up. It's time to find the dream." - The Dream
In the unfortunately necessary discussion of how women are capable of making good movies too the name Ana Lily Amirpour gets a fair amount of play. Amirpour has been directing short films for nearly a decade now but her first feature film, a black and white contemporary vampire western set in a small Iranian town, was the one that cemented her reputation as a visionary genre film-maker. The Bad Batch is Amirpour's sophomore effort, a bleak rave-culture tinged dystopian drama taking place in an open wasteland prison somewhere in or near Texas.
Our protagonist is Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a skinny pretty blonde woman who gets captured and partially eaten by cannibals shortly after being released into this nightmarish desert zone. Fortunately her cannibalistic capturers don't have freezers and decide to preserve their excess meat by leaving it alive as they take piece by piece for their meals. Arlen manages to trip her captor and escape where she is discovered by a leather-skinned drifter pushing a shopping cart (Jim Carey) who takes her to a small enclave known as Comfort.
Arlen stays in Comfort for a time, getting fitted with a prosthetic leg and buying a revolver, and sets out across the desert to avenge what was done on her. She stops at a trash dump and finds a woman and a child sifting through garbage for useful things, kills the woman and kidnaps the girl and returns to Comfort.
But Comfort isn't all it's cracked up to be. The wasteland paradise is run by a David Koresh type figure known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) who gives the people all the luxuries in the world and keeps them pacified with psychedelic drugs and nightly raves. He lives in a mansion and is always flanked by a squad of his pregnant wives, all of whom are bearing automatic weapons.
The Dream kidnaps the girl and Arlen goes on an LSD-laced walk in the desert where she runs across the girl's cannibalistic father, Miami Man (Jason Momoa). Miami Man demands Arlen's help finding his daughter in Comfort in they set across the wasteland.
For starters, let me address the fact that this movie has gotten largely poor reviews. It's slow, it's underwritten, and it's indulgent. Those things are all true and I'll get to each of them in their own time but up top I just have to say that The Bad Batch is a wonderfully beautiful and captivating film.
Lyle Vincent's cinematography is amazing, the film is full of wonderful and iconic shots that are a joy to look at. The movie uses color, bright primary clothing in the daytime and lurid neon at night, to contrast the blue of the sky and the brown of the sand. The wardrobe seems to be made up of whatever was hanging around the Vice editorial office (except Waterhouse's wardrobe, which seems to have been raided from Yolandi Visser's closet) but it fits the general slacker Millennial aesthetic that a lot of the extras seem to be there to give off.
The soundtrack, by Brett Pierce and Andrea von Foerster is a wonderfully eclectic mix of club music and bass-heavy tracks that give the movie the movie a dreamlike quality that persists throughout, particularly in the dark scenes.
The film is impeccably shot, staged, and put together and this reason alone is enough to make me a champion of The Bad Batch. But despite what you've been told the movie does have merits beyond the auditory and visual.
Now first lets address the pace of this film which is languid if we're being nice and sub-glacial if we're not. This is a common complaint about art movies and one that's not necessarily unfair but there have been aimless slow-paced doomsday films like Late August at the Hotel Ozone and The Rover who are good in spite or even because they're so drawn out.
Now, at nearly two hours, I can say that The Bad Batch has a bit of fluff and some of that is overindulgent dialogue (most of it spoken by Keanu Reeves at maybe his most placid) but a lot of the slow-pace is actual an illusion created by the film's relative lack of dialogue.
Amirpour lets a lot go unspoken in the movie which is generally to the film's favor. The dialogue tends to be on the over-indulgent side. People talk in an unnatural subtext-heavy manner that's reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos movies. Furthermore, the accents of our two leads are atrocious. London-born Suki Waterhouse's southern accent is about as convincing as Mick Jagger's and Jason Momoa is a Native Hawaiian doing a Cuban accent just a few ticks up the scale from Al Pacino's famous minstrel show performance from Scarface. The two do a fine job of acting but each time they open their mouths is like fingernails on a chalkboard, they should've at least found a Hispanic actor for Miami Man if not someone of actual Cuban descent and most Texans don't talk in that Tennessee good-ol'-boy drawl that's favored by films and TV anyway.
As far as the rest of the cast, Keanu Reeves is capable in his third major scumbag role (the other two being his turns in The Gift and The Neon Demon respectively.) Reeve's sleepy performance is easy to dismiss but few other actors have managed to pull charisma from a place where there is none and I daresay there are no actors who could've convincingly pulled off The Dream's always calm and soft-spoken demeanor in a way that sold the sleazier undercurrents of the character.
We have two stunt-cast actors, Giovanni Ribisi as a yelling mentally unstable man with a bad haircut and Jim Carrey as a sweaty, sun burnt drifter with a beard and false teeth that render him nearly unrecognizable. Carrey's role doesn't speak a single line which would seem to play against his strengths but with his manic scenery chewing in his other films it's easy to forget that Carrey has always had a talent for physical acting. His character seems to be a magic drifter type who serves as a bit of deus ex machina but Carrey sells the part so well that he's one of the more likeable parts of the movie. The same cannot be said for Ribisi whose role is easily part of that 20-30 minutes that could've been left on the cutting room floor. He's there for thematic purposes but he's redundant and one of the more indulgent characters in the film, both from a writing and performance standpoint. Most damning is his lack of relevance to the plot which makes him feel like he's just wasting my time.
Where the movie will succeed or fail for you, ultimately is the two leads. Arlen and Miami Man have a courtship of sorts but it's one that has a rocky start. Miami Man is among the various people hanging out in the airplane graveyard where Arlen's leg and arm are removed and eaten. There's no evidence that he ate any of Arlen but a few scenes later he's shown to have an amputee prisoner of his own who he kills and butchers in one of the film's only instances of gore.
The movie tries to soften our opinion of Miami Man. He mercy kills the prisoner when she begs him, telling him she can't take any more. He's also very artistic, drawing very detailed sketches and painting. He has a true love for his young daughter, whose name is tattooed on his neck, and the movie makes a point of letting us in on who Miami Man is. He's a Cuban refugee who was thrown in with The Bad Batch because of his illegal status and though he's ruthless and does unconscionable things it tells us that he only does them because it's the only choice in the world he's in.
Whether or not you jibe with this movie is going to depend heavily on how sympathetic you are to Miami Man. He's hardly the first reprehensible protagonist that a doomsday film expects us to root for on a certain level, such as The Rover's Eric or A Boy and His Dog's Vic. Miami Man is a cannibal whether he wants to be or not and that's a pretty big hurdle for a lot of people. Similarly if you don't sympathize with Arlen's revulsion at Comfort (it would seem to be pretty easy to live there without having to deal with The Dream's bullshit if one so chooses) and professed love of both Miami Man and the wasteland that took her arm and leg then this movie isn't going to work for you.
At the heart of The Bad Batch is a love story between these two characters and while I'd hesitate to call it underwritten, so much of what's going on between them is unspoken, buried in glances and body language rather than spelled out in specific terms which makes it easy to not see what's happening and feel like the ending comes out of nowhere. This is a movie that relies heavily on mood and subtle visual story telling rather than dialogue and that doesn't come off as cleanly as it could or should.
By and large, Ana Lily Amirpour's second feature film The Bad Batch is a wonderful and visionary movie and though it has some bloat and some self-indulgent writing (and those accents are a legitimate black mark on the film) it's a misunderstood gem that I think will undergo a critical evaluation by art-film assholes such as myself for years to come. Think of it as a middle ground in tone, pacing, quality, and ambition between The Rover and Six-String Samurai. It's a great movie but it's likely to alienate a lot of people, you should watch it anyway.
Next Time on Doomsday Reels
"We will need a lot more hemp before we're through."