Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Cast: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carey, Diego Luna, Giovanni Ribisi
Runtime: 1 hr 58 mins
Released By: Shaw
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/thebadbatchneon/
Opening Day: 27 July 2017
Synopsis: A young girl wanders a savage desert wasteland in a dystopian future United States, in Ana Lily Amirpour’s highly anticipated follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The aforementioned girl is Arlen, (Suki Waterhouse), one of thousands of Americans deemed unacceptable to society, who is unceremoniously dumped into a hostile desert wasteland fenced off from civilized society. While wandering in her desert exile, she is captured by a savage band of cannibals and quickly realizes she'll have to fight for her very existence in this human-eat-human world. With electrifying visuals, a score to die for and a stellar cast, Amirpour has created another cinematic chapter that is as uncategorizable as her first.
‘The Bad Batch’ is notable first and foremost for being Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to her 2014 Sundance discovery ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’, a black-and-white spaghetti western female vampire flick that defied categorisation but was undoubtedly borne out of a filmmaker with a singular vision and voice. In that respect, her second feature film certainly doesn’t disappoint – against a vast and barely habitable stretch of Texas wasteland, Amirpour paints a visually striking desert dystopia complete with iron-pumping cannibals, cult crazies, acid raves, a wandering mute hermit played by an almost unrecognizable Jim Carrey and a self-styled messiah called the Dream played by Keanu Reeves. From the grindhouse world of the man-eating ‘bridge people’ to the Dream’s trippy block parties, there is absolutely no doubt that Amirpour is a spellbinding visual artist in her own right. Sadly though, her mash-up of ‘Mad Max’ and ‘Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ lacks narrative momentum to carry it through a consequently sluggish two hours, so much so that it does feel at some stretches like dragging your feet across the wide-open terrain.
Since Amirpour herself wrote the movie, she has only herself to blame for the storytelling inertia. You wouldn’t be able to tell that outright from the opening act though – not only is it one hell of a punchy introduction, it is an even more impressive achievement given how it contains virtually no dialogue for about 20 mins. A lot happens within that time, which follows our female protagonist Arlen (British model Suki Waterhouse) as she is dumped on the wrong side of a fence that houses the titular bunch – whoever society has deemed undesirable, for whatever reason. No sooner has she freshened her lipstick in a wrecked car is Arlen abducted by scouts from the Bridge, drugged and harvested of an arm and a leg for food. Despite her newfound physical infirmities, Arlen manages to overpower her captor and escape into the desert using no more than a skateboard, before she is picked up by Carrey’s vagrant on a supermarket trolley. She lands up in the sanctuary of Comfort, a frontier town guarded by armed men atop stacks of rusted shipping containers.
Slightly less interesting is her story five months after, as she is fitted with a prosthetic leg and spends her days roaming the desert fringes outside town. One of these walks ends in a violent confrontation with one of her former captors (Yolanda Ross), and the young girl (Jayda Fink) whom the latter was with ends up trailing Arlen back to Comfort. For a while, Arlen becomes the girl’s guardian, but the two become separated during one of the Dream’s acid-fuelled parties. Whilst the girl we come to know is named Honey is taken in by the Dream himself to live with his harem in his two-storey mansion, Arlen ends up meeting the girl’s father (Jason Momoa) after wandering off into the middle of the desert under an LSD-induced haze, the latter a cannibalistic loner known as Miami Man who simply wants his daughter back. Thus marks the start of an unlikely alliance between the pair, as Miami Man enlists Arlen to retrieve Honey from back in Comfort – and although he first threatens her with death if she doesn’t find Honey, she will come to fall for his brooding masculine charm.
At first, the reversal of the typical male protagonist/ female love interest dynamic seems intriguing, especially given the potential love-hate complications arising from her previous run-in with the Miami Man’s tribe. But by the time their time together is cut short by someone from Comfort who shoots Miami Man in the shoulder, it becomes clear that there is in fact little depth to their relationship. We know not why Arlen’s initial rage against the ‘bridge people’ – for that is the reason why she had shot one of their kind earlier – just suddenly disappears; neither for that matter why Miami Man doesn’t exact vengeance against Arlen for killing one of his consorts, not least the one who was effectively caretaker to his daughter. Because these character motivations are never quite fleshed out, it is hard to believe that Arlen will take it upon herself to rescue Honey from the Dream, which arguably could have culminating in a lot more exciting than a stand-off that ends without any bullets fired or any lives lost. Squandered too is the opportunity to explore the ideological differences between the two communities; after all, both had been borne out of social outcasts struggling to find their own lives in the wilderness.
To Anapour’s credit, ‘The Bad Batch’ is hardly boring – even as the narrative meanders somewhat aimlessly in the second half, the shimmering sun-blasted widescreen imagery is always arresting to behold, with due credit to her returning cinematographer Lyle Vincent. She also has the benefit of a thoroughly committed cast, including a fierce lead in Waterhouse, a charismatic brooder in Momoa, a gleefully smarmy Reeves and other occasional oddities like Giovanni Ribisi as a loquacious lunatic and Diego Luna as the Comfort deejay. Like her feature debut therefore, this cross between spaghetti western and cannibal exploitation looks sensational, its trippy appeal further boosted by a killer eclectic soundtrack dominated by Brooklyn electro duo Darkside. That doesn’t disguise its patchy story all right, but if you’re willing to let yourself be lulled by its visual spell, you’re likely to find that there is plenty of good amidst the occasional batches of bad.
(As visually arresting and distinctive as her feature debut, Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up is a striking dystopian western whose images make up for its patches of narrative inertia)
Review by Gabriel Chong