It’s been almost twenty-four hours since I’ve seen Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch and I’m still conflicted on how I feel about it. I admired the film’s audacity in some respects, but I was also annoyed with its idiosyncrasies. So many Hollywood movies are clear in what they want you to feel and think that sometimes you can be caught off guard by the ones that float through the crack in the system.
First and foremost there is the imagery. If there is anything one can take away from The Bad Batch, it will be the images. Amirpour allows the landscape to almost overcome the film. The starkness of the arid west Texas desert takes up the majority of the frame. Arlen (Suzie Waterhouse) is often times only partially framed. The negative space is filled with blowing sand or the faraway horizon of desert mountains.
Arlen’s dialogue, like the desert around her, is sparse. Amirpour allows the geography to illustrate the psyche of her characters. The wind swept dunes seem to almost overwhelm Arlen as she makes her way aimlessly through a sun-baked wasteland. We know she is number 5040 of the bad batch. What the bad batch is or why Arlen has been tagged and released, we do not know.
Soon after being released, Arlen is captured by two people on a golf cart. Chained up and drugged she is soon butchered, her arm and leg chopped off for meat. The way Amirpour and her cinematographer Lyle Vincent photograph the maiming of Arlen straddles between not showing you anything and showing you just enough.
Arlen soon manages to escape and kill her abductors. She then takes off into the unknown inhospitable land to search for Comfort. A brochure given to her by the guards tells her to “Follow the Dream, find Comfort.” As she slowly makes her way on her back on a stolen skateboard across the desert floor, she is rescued by a wandering hermit (Jim Carrey).
It’s hard to describe the sweltering heat that Amirpour and Vincent manage to convey through camera placement. In addition, Amirpour keeps her dialogue sparse. We know precious little about Arlen and even less about why things are the way they are. As Arlen is rescued by the Hermit, we return to the cannibal colony.
In a wry twist, the cannibal colony seems to be inhabited by fitness freaks and muscle beach types. A character known only as Miami Man (Jason Momoa) emerges from the wrecked cars that make up the colony. We follow him around as he contemplates his life. Again there is very little to no dialogue.
Momoa has a presence that almost overwhelms the entire movie. The scenes without him makes us anxious as we hope and wait for his return. Momoa has a way of acting that feels effortless. His gestures tend to speak more than the lines written for him.
This is in contrast to Waterhouse’s performance. Amirpour has her camera luxuriate on Waterhouse as much or more than Momoa. Waterhouse manages to affect aimlessness and confliction as she struggles with her wanderlust. Most people having found Comfort, would want to stay and start a life. But Waterhouse’s Arlen just can’t help but leave Comfort time and time again. Waterhouse’s task is more difficult because she has to portray someone in transition. Momoa’s Miami Man has a clear goal to strive for. Her Arlen manages to beg our sympathy as she tries vainly to figure out what she wants.
The Bad Batch is at it’s best when the characters are silent. It’s only when they start to talk do the characters begin to grate on our nerves. There are long stretches of the movie where we’re left to suss out what’s going on for ourselves. This is a refreshing change of pace from the loud and boisterous mega-budget movies with a typical three act structure.
Films like these require more work on our part. We have to retool our minds as we watch them. The movie is different so we must meet it at least halfway and watch it differently. Which is why it’s so disappointing when scenes such as Arlen tripping on Acid and walking through the desert at night are tarnished with stilted and inane dialogue. The swirling stars and transcendental music are all wasted as we hear her inner ramblings of “What is this? What’s going on? Is it always like this?”
This is not to say all the dialogue is terrible. When the conversations are terse, and there is a clear point, the dialogue is damn near pitch perfect. It’s when characters seem to ramble without purpose does the dialogue seem written and forced.
When Arlen finds Comfort, she discovers it’s a non-cannibalistic paradise where the bad batch can live under the benign rule of the Dream (Keanu Reeves). Reeves has two speeches in the movie. One an eye-rolling overly written diatribe about how awesome they are to be part of the ‘bad batch.’ It’s here we begin to realize the title is better read than spoken out loud. This is counterbalanced by a later speech with brilliant delivery by Reeves. With a straight face, he explains to Arlen about feces both literal and metaphorical.
For a while, it seems The Bad Batch might just be about a series of adventures Arlen has. But slowly Amirpour reveals a plot thread and then another. I won’t go into detail, suffice to say it involves Miami Man, Arlen, Miami Man’s daughter Honey (Jyada Pink), The Dream, and The Dream’s suspiciously well-armed pregnant harem.
The climax of the movie is almost anticlimactic and not nearly as action packed as what I might have implied. I’m not entirely sure that I buy the resolution though. Although I do appreciate Amirpour’s verve in how we get there.
The character of Arlen is a rarity in some ways and a commonality in others. The aimless wanderer is a well-heeled trope. But we rarely see the trope portrayed by a woman or told by a woman. Arlen’s search for a home, I suspect mirrors Amirpour’s own existence. An Iranian-American she was born in Kent, England and raised in Bakersfield, CA.
Miami Man is from Havana, Cuba and fled to, where else, Miami. He’s part of the bad batch because he’s an undocumented immigrant. Both Miami Man and Arlen seem to be searching. They are not looking for someone or someplace so much as themselves. They have been forced into new circumstances; their lives irrevocably changed; both by outside forces and each other. They must now adapt and figure out who they are after it has all transpired.
You could be forgiven for reading this review and wondering why I’m so conflicted. There are three black characters throughout the movie, two of them are killed. One is stabbed in the back by Miami Man while trying to take Arlen for reasons we are left to figure out for ourselves. The other is Miami Man’s partner and Honey’s Mother who is shot in the head by Arlen.
Why am I bringing this up? Because black characters have a high mortality rate in the cinema. Some may think this piece of trivia has no place in a review. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum. There’s also the fact that it’s something I thought of and reacted to deeply, so it has every right to be talked about here.
It could be argued that since The Bad Batch is bathed in a dystopian setting, these deaths are only par for the course. Also, many of the people at the Cannibal Colony and at Comfort are PoC. Then, of course, there is The Dream, Keanu Reeves.
But there are only three black characters, and two of them die. I can’t speak to as to why but it bothered me. I’m not levying a charge of racism at Amirpour or anyone else. More than anything it’s probably something she has just absorbed by consuming popular culture, and that’s the problem.
The Bad Batch is a bit of a challenge to get through, and I mean that as a compliment. I enjoy movies that don’t reveal their secrets to me right away. I’m still not wild about the ending. I remain troubled by what I perceive to be a disturbing effect of societal conditioning via storytelling. Still, though Ana Lily Amirpour has made an intriguing film that I just so happen not to know how I feel about it. And that’s okay.