Suppose, for reasons that now seem irrelevant, that you were tossed into a dystopian wasteland beyond the reach of US law. You’re in the desert, surrounded by cracked and parched ground, with little shelter from the sun, and all you’ve got to your name is a baseball hat and a sandwich.
But, feeling unrepentant and maybe even a little relieved to be out from under the auspices of the law, you find shade in a broken-down car and contemplate your next move. In the distance, you hear a rumbling. In the rearview mirror, you see a golf cart hurtling toward you.
That’s the first few minutes of The Bad Batch, a stylish, nightmarish love story with strong Mad Max overtones that come close to compensating for its rather tepid plot. As was the case with writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch is a showcase for Amirpour’s fearless aesthetic choices and willingness to startle her audience. She’s a punk filmmaker, mixing horror with romance and sprinkling it with a healthy touch of female desire.
Yet dystopian stories usually aim to tell us something about ourselves today. And if The Bad Batch, which is basically a semi-convincing love story, is trying for that, it fails. Style overtakes substance, and the movie ends with a little too much of a shrug for having started out with so much imagination.
The Bad Batch quickly builds a fascinating nightmare of a world
Set somewhere in the near future, The Bad Batch drops its protagonist — (Suki Waterhouse), whose name we eventually discover is Arlen — into the arid desert and sets some hungry cannibals on her trail. The tribe is led by a character named Miami Man (Jason Momoa, sporting massive pecs and a ludicrous Cuban accent); once they catch up with Arlen, they drug her and hack off a couple of limbs. From there, the world of the film builds, and we quickly realize this is no country for the young or the weak. Everyone out in this desert is part of the “bad batch,” a catchall term for anyone not deemed good enough for polite society.
The Bad Batch doesn’t waste much time explaining itself, but we can fill in the blanks based on the characters we meet as we follow Arlen through the desert, who range from drug dealers and criminals to immigrants and strung-out wanderers who seem to have lost their minds. In the future, people relegated to the literal fringes of society are simply those who — whether by choice or compulsion — refuse to behave. It’s like Dante’s Inferno: None of the Bad Batch are sorry they’re there.
That’s an interesting concept, if not a particularly original one: The desert is ostensibly a prison colony filled with unrepentant sinners who would rather be left to their own devices than forced to live by others’ whims. Whether such a life is sustainable is a question; it seems that, at least in the world of The Bad Batch, people still ache to follow someone strong. Even those who fancy themselves rebels want a leader.
Arlen is scrappy, and she eventually escapes the cannibals’ clutches, making her way first on her own and then with the help of a scummy, toothless drifter (Jim Carrey) to a town called Comfort. It’s a community of Bad Batchers, surrounded by fences and shipping crates, who live in relative, well, comfort, in a makeshift hamlet that recalls an inverted version of The Leftovers’ Jarden, Texas.
You can get noodles for a dollar in Comfort and live in a house, and hang out in a skate park. Or you can live in a tent by the fence and yell a lot, like the Screamer (Giovanni Ribisi). In Comfort, nobody will really bother you. But the name of the town still seems more like a cruel joke than an earnest promise.
Comfort is benevolently ruled by a man known as the Dream (a mustachioed Keanu Reeves), who gives its residents hallucinatory drugs and says things like, “To Enter the Dream, You Must Let the Dream Enter You” (it’s impossible to imagine him uttering such a phrase in any other way than in sentence caps). It’s no surprise that he’s guarded by a horde of pregnant, nubile young women. He throws parties deejayed by Jimmy (Diego Luna) and illuminated by neon lights against the desert sky.
Out beyond the reaches of the town, where the cannibals live by scrounging for food and cobbling together a life from scraps left in junkyards, Miami Man searches for his young daughter, who’s gone missing. When Arlen, high on the Dream’s substances, wanders out into the desert, she meets him there again. And this time, something sparks between them.
The Bad Batch squanders its strong start and rich setting on a too-thin plot
The first half of The Bad Batch is remarkably strong filmmaking, largely because Amirpour lets loose her imagination and tells the story just how she wants. There’s next to no dialogue for almost half the film; life is so brutish and nasty in the wasteland that most of the people who exist there are beyond language.
Occasionally, songs from Ace of Base, Culture Club, and White Lies pop up — but the most prominent aural input is just cranked-up sound design that amplifies the feeling of dirty horror, whether via the squeak of the hinges in a prosthetic limb, the fwing of a machete brought down on prey, or the sound of clothing tearing as a body is dragged across the dirt.
Amirpour’s eye for grotesquerie is perfect. Who else would think to stick a crow on top of a sign that says “Seek Comfort,” erected in the cracked desert ground, while a girl missing half her limbs lies on her back, scooting slowly along her way a skateboard in the relentless sunshine? Amirpour likes to keep shallow focus in her still frame, with one person at the center, drawing focus, while something shadowy and blurry approaches in the distance. Every shot is arresting, a carefully thought-out aid to building a world that still keeps some of its secrets hidden, tantalizing the audience and leaving us wanting more.
But though both Momoa and Waterhouse are fun to watch — stripped largely of words, they’re mostly acting with their marvelously expressive faces — their conversations feel somehow both under- and overwritten. Reeves, too, uses most of his limited screen time to deliver monologues that seem pinched and obvious. In fact, almost anytime someone says anything, it’s frustrating; the only good lines of dialogue come from one of the cannibals, Maria (Yolonda Ross), and her young daughter Honey (Jayda Fink).
By the end of The Bad Batch, I found myself wondering if it would be more effective to have just eliminated the talking entirely. Amirpour’s monochrome, feminist Iranian vampire tale A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was even more silent, and it worked because the director is so good at training her camera on the finely tuned performances she elicits from her cast. Would a silent dystopia, with its heightened sounds and visceral squirms, have made for a more haunting effect?
As it is, The Bad Batch seems not quite able to get a grasp on the reason for its existence. Too bad. There’s so much to work with here, out beyond the reaches of both society and the usual rules of filmmaking.
The Bad Batch releases in theaters on June 23.