Overview: A young woman challenges overwhelming desperation and violence in a dystopian wasteland. Annapurna; 2017; Rated R; 115 minutes.
“We ain’t good, we’re bad”: The plot of The Bad Batch, the sophomore feature from Writer-Director Ana Lily Amirpour, is not difficult to follow. A young woman, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), lost in the desert, loses her arm and leg to cannibals in a community called The Bridge. She escapes, murders a woman in revenge, and then aims to repent by caring for that woman’s daughter Honey (Jayda Fink). Meanwhile the young girl’s father Miami Man (Jason Momoa) searches for her. The aesthetic aims, with all the sights and sounds of desolation are consistent and beautifully executed, the heat and grime of this dystopian wasteland are palpable. The stylistic allusions to exploitation films apparent in the film’s unflinching violence and eclectic soundtrack are also consistent and largely sound.
What is wholly confusing is what this movie is about, what it is saying, and how any scene or the film as a whole goes about saying whatever it’s trying to say. Nothing that happens feels important, emotionally effective or related to any other scene in a way other than aesthetically. What begins as mysterious starts to feel nonsensical, with neither the fun it attempts with its stylistic allusions nor the deeper meaning it attempts through its writing.
The introduction of each of the characters is promising, but as The Bad Batch progresses, each sequence feels like a loosely related entry in an anthology film comprised of beautifully shot short films that when put together say very little.
“Estoy perdido”: Most frustrating about The Bad Batch is that nearly every scene feels like a jumping off point for a story that goes unexplored. With very little imagination a viewer can take loose threads and envision several different, better movies buried throughout. Jim Carrey’s mute hermit, Diego Luna’s Jimmy, Keanu Reeves’ cult leader-adjacent leader known as The Dream, Miami Man’s unhappy partner Maria (Yolanda Ross); all of these citizens of the wasteland and their strongest moments are interesting enough to warrant more than the scenes they receive, and thus render their inclusion confusing and distracting.
Arlen’s relationship with Honey, the young girl she takes in, is the most fascinating relationship in the film. It is a relationship borne of Arlen’s guilt and regret for the murder of the young girl’s mother Maria and softens Arlen’s learned hardness, and nearly makes Arlen a fully formed character. But Honey and Arlen spend very little of the film together and thus this potential in terms of the possibilities for characterization and story go largely to waste.
Miami Man’s search for his daughter is an effective journey, and his reunion with her almost makes up for the emotional vacuum of the rest of the film. Miami Man is in fact the most interesting character in the film, an artist who is gentle and sweet with his daughter who also happens to butcher and eat other human beings. A scene in which he paints a portrait of his daughter, and then leaves his home to butcher, cook, and eat a young woman, is more effective than the entirety of Arlen’s characterization.
Like its characters, the thematic focus of this film is vaguely rendered. A chase for escapism in a wasteland, social stratification, loss of innocence, guilt and revenge, moral relativism in times of crisis; all of these themes could be said to be present in small measure in The Bad Batch, but I would not go as far as to say that any of these concepts are what this film is “about.” They are introduced and subsequently abandoned.
Keanu Reeves’ character, The Dream, especially feels like a misstep. His character is introduced early on, as the leader of a community called Comfort, presiding over a drug-fueled rave, uniting the citizens of Comfort in their rejection by society. He becomes ambiguously threatening in the last 20 minutes of the film when Arlen must rescue Honey from his mansion. He becomes somewhat of a villain in a film that doesn’t need one, and he film doesn’t attempt to say anything about who he is, and why his behavior is contrary to Arlen’s values.
“I thought it was pretty at first but now I’m not so sure”: The overarching aesthetic homage is the most consistent (and consistently entertaining) aspect of the film. Had this movie simply been a retread of exploitation films, and executed the chaos, mayhem, and even humor those films entail successfully, that would have been more effective. But the few conversations this film has are peppered with grandiose but ultimately meaningless statements that promise a meaning deeper than an aesthetic throwback that the film never delivers.
The concept of the titular “bad batch,” misfits removed from mainstream society, grasps at social commentary. Miami Man is among the bad batch, for example, because he was an illegal immigrant, traveling by boat from Cuba to Miami as a teenager. But like many of the more interesting themes of this film, even the concept of the “bad batch” feels hardly touched.
The Dream says to Arlen toward the end of the film: “Life is the dream.” This line is delivered as if it should feel poignant or at least related to the events that have happened throughout. Instead, it feels, like much of the film, like faux profundity that is neither farcical nor sincere.
Overall: The Bad Batch is visually, aurally beautiful, and well-shot, but its stylistic cohesion does not extend to the vast majority of its characters or its narrative. The film is unworthy of the bit of controversy it has drummed up, and is ultimately made of disjointed sequences that repeatedly promise interesting stories on which The Bad Batch never delivers.
Featured Image: Annapurna