No one expected this from Ana Lily-Amirpour. The filmmaker who first broke onto the scene with the Iranian vampire tale, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, had the world from which to choose for her sophomore effort. A story about finding love in a cannibalistic, post-apocalyptic wasteland isn’t the stretch, but what Amirpour chooses to do with The Bad Batch, her newest film, is quite shocking. She turns the mirror around on modern society showing a dystopian future that is closer to possible truth than many of us would like to admit. Unfortunately The Bad Batch is layered with cryptic subtext and long, drawn out scenes with little-to-no progression; sadly Amirpour’s second outing seems like something of a big step back.
Her story in The Bad Batch centers on Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a young girl who is labeled unworthy of society, given a number, and cast out through the fence that leads from Texas to the lawless desert beyond. There she immediately runs into the “bridge people”, other members who have been cast out and who choose to feed on other human beings for survival, the hulking Miami Man (Jason Momoa) among them. Further into the wasteland Arlen runs into a mute Hermit (Jim Carrey) who wanders the desert seemingly in aid of others and Comfort, a mini-society led by the almost cult-ish leader, The Dream (Keanu Reeves).
Cannibals attack and feed. Time moves on. Eventually Arlen, as almost an act of revenge, kidnaps Miami Man’s young daughter, setting events in motion that travel very little distance and takes an awfully long time in getting there. Instead the film focuses more on Arlen’s place in the desert, where she will eventually end up in this world of outcasts and unwanteds. Everything else is left to ruminate, apparently.
It really shouldn’t come as a shock that Amirpour chooses subtlety and mood over energy and suspense. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was dripping with mood and angst. What she has to offer with The Bad Batch, though, seems as if it should be saying more and definitely doing more. There are long moments of silence in the film, along with extended atmospheric takes of the desert environment surrounding all these deranged members of a broken society. The film never establishes a point in time. For all we know the government could be casting out “Bad Batch” subjects into the desert right now. That’s definitely a point Amirpour is attempting to make, how closely related to our own world this all seems to be.
The worlds we find in this desert are not that dissimilar to our own. Miami Man appears to be a member of a gym of muscleheads who spend their days pumping iron in the desert sun. The citizens of Comfort don’t seem that detached from the current society, either, food carts and markets during the day turning into drugs and raves at night. The Bad Batch is how I imagine Burning Man is, if we’re being completely honest.
But there seems to be more to Arlen’s story, especially in relation to Miami Man, that Amirpour leaves to assumption. Both actors give solid performances, but we’re never quite sure what to make of either of them. It isn’t that we need high-octane action in every post-apocalyptic world we see on cinema, either. God knows we can’t have a Mad Max: Fury Road every year. What The Bad Batch lacks instead is story, a focused narrative driving all these people through the desert to one, logical outcome. Amirpour doesn’t seem interested in even providing that, and, though the resulting film leads to the assumption the filmmaker has said what she needs to say, it’s all left as a jumbled afterthought.
Maybe this was the director’s intention, as well, to comment on the society as an aimless mass of sweaty meat in a hot, endless desert. The Bad Batch certainly feels like it would make a solid double-feature with Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, and that goes further than the comparison of ’90s-infused soundtracks. You’ll never hear Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” the same way twice after seeing The Bad Batch. Even Korine’s film had a clear narrative and something of a message, messy yet beautiful as it was. With The Bad Batch we’re never quite sure what Amirpour is aiming at, and the listless-but-still-messy society in which she depicts leaves us hoping for something a little more concrete in the filmmaker’s future.
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