The Bad Batch: sloppy second feature for Amirpour
Originality is a decidedly rare quality in horror films, particularly in this current era of remake fever. So when a film as unique as A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night appears, it tends to get more than a little notice. Praised as one of the most inventive films of the 21st century, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night put director Ana Lily Amirpour on the map, pushing her to the forefront of a new wave of female horror auteurs with bold, multicultural styles and unflinchingly progressive visions.
Naturally, Amirpour’s debut left critics and audiences eager to see what the director would follow it with. Unsurprisingly, her new film The Bad Batch is as committed to vivid style as its predecessor – but it fits its title a little too well.
The Bad Batch provokes a “been there, done that” sense, perhaps because it is landing into a glut of dystopian works. A particular influence is Mad Max: Fury Road, with which The Bad Batch shares a number of common threads: a gruff, battered protagonist missing limbs; a subplot involving a leader with a harem of pregnant women; even curious desert vehicle choices (although here they’re all golf carts and scooters). Indeed, you could even argue The Bad Batch is merely Fury Road by way of Spring Breakers, with detours through other Harmony Korine works like Gummo and Trash Humpers.
If The Bad Batch’s sole weakness is liberal pillaging, that’d be easily forgivable. The flimsy narrative follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) as she’s dropped into a lawless land between the US and Mexico where society’s undesirables are left to fend for themselves in some undetermined future. After a nasty incident with a cannibal group led by Miami Man (Jason Momoa) leaves Arlen short an arm and a leg, she ends up in Comfort, a town that essentially looks like a Burning Man camp, only with Keanu Reeves (John Wick) serving as benevolent dictator. He might have a dozen pregnant brides but, as he points out, at least he makes sure the “shit leaves when you flush the toilet”.
Arlen’s inability to get, uh, comfortable in her new community eventually leads to her crossing paths with Miami Man once again, and it’s in this second half of the film that Amirpour really struggles, trotting out a mind-boggling array of go-nowhere plot threads and endless stunt casting.
Unlike A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which featured no major stars, The Bad Batch is stupidly full of celebrities of every stripe, all competing to stray the furthest from their reputations and display the worst accents in cinema history. Momoa’s character is supposed to be Cuban, but he sounds like a Cajun having a stroke, while his nemesis The Dream is just Keanu Reeves in a bad wig, fake mustache, and vague southern accent that comes and goes. As if that wasn’t enough, Jim Carrey (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) and Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan) both play semi-prophetic drifters, Diego Luna (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) pops up as the bad batch’s resident celebrity DJ, and Yolonda Ross (Stranger Inside) is completely wasted as a bridge person who may or may not be questioning cannibal life.
All of these celebrities in bizarre roles, and an admittedly thrilling soundtrack, do little to distract from the film’s lack of plot throughline. Amirpour eventually tries to turn The Bad Batch into a Shane-esque western, forcing Arlen to choose between the stifling domesticity The Dream and Comfort offer, and a more dangerous but perhaps more fitting life outside its walls. The problem is that in order to develop this internal conflict, Amirpour winds up making a film which romanticizes an abusive relationship. (It doesn’t help that Amirpour is currently being scrutinized for her reactions to questions about how the film treats black characters.)
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was successful in large part due to its discipline and focus, sticking faithfully to the brilliantly simple idea of a vampire western. Because The Bad Batch doesn’t know what it is, the central argument about what’s right for Arlen never forms into something coherent. Sometimes the film channels Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, featuring lonely people walking through the desert; sometimes it’s a cannibal nightmare; sometimes it’s a desert music fest mockumentary.
With time, perhaps The Bad Batch will be easier to appreciate as an early work by a director trying not to get pinned down by her breakout: a flawed but ambitious work that hints at greatness to come. Right now, however, it’s an unappealing mess that tries to do too much.