Ana Lily Amirpour’s wasteland survival story, The Bad Batch raises a lot of issues while never quite getting to its point.
The Bad Batch, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s second feature, should be better than it is. It’s confidently directed and atmospherically striking: aesthetic choices like the smiley-face shorts featured in the poster, or the song “Karma Chameleon” playing just before a murder, stick in your brain for days. As the film opens, it promises to be a sardonic allegory of America’s justice system, delivered with skill and style. But it’s all buildup and no finish. Instead, Amirpour’s wasteland survival story raises a lot of issues while never quite getting to its point.THE BAD BATCH is all buildup and no finish.Click To Tweet
The film opens with a pre-recorded announcement about avoiding eye contact with “Bad Batch inmates” over a black screen. Inmates turns out to be a bit of a misnomer: our heroine, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), is unceremoniously shoved through a locked fence into a trash-littered desert, past a sign informing us that the state of Texas ends here. In this near-future, America doesn’t bother to imprison its criminals, but instead exiles them from society into a lawless and resource-starved wilderness to literally and figuratively feed on each other.
Within minutes, Arlen is scooped up by a group of body-building cannibals who hack off two of her limbs. She escapes and winds up in a settlement called Comfort, which seems suspiciously well-off compared to everywhere else — there’s ample food, safety, and electricity, though people are eating each other just a few miles away. Amirpour lets our curiosity grow and grow before finally revealing that Comfort is run by cult-y creep The Dream (Keanu Reeves), whose power comes from the drug economy.Amirpour excels at world-building, creating a landscape that’s both immediate and alien.Click To Tweet
Amirpour excels at world-building, creating a landscape that’s both immediate and alien. Arlen finds herself thrust into a barren desert, showcased through wide shots of sand and mountains with nothing in sight for miles. “Wasteland” is a literal description: the two communities we see are built on leftover garbage from the outside world. The cannibals, or Bridge People, live in broken-up airplane carcasses, and even much of Comfort consists of piles of junk surrounded by rusted shipping containers banged together to form a wall. Scenes of people eking out survival in the debris of civilisation mirror dozens of post-apocalyptic thrillers, but Amirpour is clear that this story is set in our near-present. Civilisation goes on, elsewhere: we, the viewers, might live on the other side of that fence today.
The Bad Batch affects a sort of 80s and early 90s Miami Beach vibe, a tone that clashes merrily with the film’s brutal content. The cannibals listen to Culture Club and Ace of Base; the parties in Comfort are reminiscent of early raves. Costume designer Natalie O’Brien does a lot of heavy lifting on this front: the first time we see Arlen, we don’t see her face or hear her voice, but instead focus on her cute watermelon-print cutoff shorts. The upbeat music and adorable clothes are jarring against the desolate backdrop. This dissonance keeps us off-balance, giving us the sense that we can’t trust anything about what we or Arlen see.THE BAD BATCH affects a Miami Beach vibe, a tone that clashes merrily with its brutal content.Click To Tweet
We never find out what Arlen did to become part of the Bad Batch because it doesn’t matter. Other than a brief close-up of Arlen’s ear being tattooed with her Bad Batch number, we never see a single visual of the outside world. Everyone in this film is a blank slate, defined by how they behave in this extreme environment. The only character who has a past — a life before the Bad Batch — is cannibal leader Miami Man (Jason Momoa). He wasn’t exiled to the Bad Batch for gangs or drugs, as Arlen speculates, but for being an illegal immigrant. It doesn’t take much to get cast out in this world. This backstory seems designed to make us feel sentimental and wonder how much of Miami Man’s behaviour is simply a product of the world he’s been forced into. The Dream, by contrast, has adapted and thrives outside the law; in Comfort he’s created his own kingdom. It’s never made explicit, but we’re led to infer that there must be some deal or collusion between The Dream and the rest of America that the Bad Batch left behind.'Everyone is a blank slate, defined by how they behave in this extreme environment.'Click To Tweet
One of the lingering questions about this film is the degree to which it critiques existing power structures, or merely replicates them. Take the issue of race in the film — the only black characters are two-dimensional bit roles (a cannibal mother, a man who offers to trade a jug of water in exchange for Arlen) who both die horribly. At first, I took this as lampshading the issue of how power structures marginalize people of colour. But after watching the film unravel in its third act, I wonder if I was giving it too much credit. For a film about class and the American prison system, which is incredibly racialized, the sea of whiteness is striking.To what degree does THE BAD BATCH critique existing power structures, or merely replicate them?Click To Tweet
Amirpour’s framing skillfully plays with the limits of perception, highlighting the film’s motif of wilful blindness or choosing what you want to see. At first, all of The Dream’s seventies-esque groupies are shot from mid-torso up: we see their near-identical long brown hair and cheerleader features over clean white t-shirts. It’s only later that Amirpour reveals almost casually in a wide shot that every single one of these women is hugely pregnant. But why are there so few children in this world, and why is The Dream so obsessed with progeny? Amirpour never hints at an answer.Amirpour’s framing skillfully plays with the limits of perception, highlighting wilful blindness.Click To Tweet
This, unfortunately, is a recurring theme. The Bad Batch is so concerned with getting us to ask questions that it becomes an incoherent mess. Some intriguing ideas about bodies, self-image, and the way we consume one another are raised and dropped: all the cannibals are body-builders; Arlen leafs through a porn magazine, then cuts out a picture of a woman’s arm so she can imagine herself with her severed limb restored. Then there are the spaces between communities in the desert, the gaps in our perception. A helpful homeless man (Jim Carrey) seems to live in this barren no man’s land, where he feels secure enough to act altruistically — he saves both Arlen and Miami Man. But how does he live? Presumably not on people, but the only alternative place we know of where food is readily available is Comfort. The film suggests that survival outside Comfort and The Bridge is possible, but doesn’t give us any idea of how or why. This makes the final scene even more eyebrow-raising.
For all The Bad Batch is ambitious, it doesn’t trouble itself to suggest any conclusions to the many issues it raises and then abandons. Arlen’s story seems to lose direction in the final stretch, and we close on a happy-ish ending that doesn’t seem earned. We’re left with the feeling of something polished but half-finished, like the script had a few full chapters cut from it before production.
Editorial update on July 6, 2017: An earlier version of this article identified one of the two black characters in this film as a nanny. We have updated the review to reflect the fact that she was in fact a parent. We regret the error.