The Bad Batch
Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour.** / *****
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring: Suki Waterhouse (Arlen), Jason Momoa (Miami Man), Jayda Fink (Honey), Keanu Reeves (The Dream), Diego Luna (Jimmy), Jim Carrey (Hermit), Yolonda Ross (Maria), Aye Hasegawa (Mousey), Giovanni Ribisi (The Screamer), Louie Lopez Jr. (Chuy).
I have a sneaking suspicion that The Bad Batch was a screenplay draft or two away from being a great film. Ana Lily Amirpour’s more ambitious follow-up to her stunning, black and white, Jim Jarmusch inspired feminist-Western-vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, really is attempting to do a lot – so much in fact that it doesn’t do any of it particularly well. It isn’t really helped by a mostly blank lead performance by Suki Waterhouse – who isn’t particularly good during the films long, dialogue-less stretches, but it worse when she speaks, and a horrible Southern accent comes out. There is still things to admire about The Bad Batch – the cinematography is wonderful, the art direction even better – but the film is a jumble of ideas that seem promising, but don’t really lead anywhere.
Set in a not-too-distant dystopian future, where undesirables are tattooed, and left in the middle of the desert to fend for themselves, walled off from the rest of America, The Bad Batch is a film that really should speak to Donald Trump’s America. The opening sequence is the best in the film – where newcomer to this wasteland, Arlen (Waterhouse) is quickly captured, and taken to a family of cannibals – and during an extended sequence, loses a couple of limbs (an arm and a leg) to the family’s dinner, before escaping. She finds sanctuary, of a sort, in Comfort – another area of the wasteland, presided over by a strange cult leader known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) – but she doesn’t fit in there either. Travelling through that wasteland again, she becomes the guardian of a little girl, Honey (Jayda Fink) – and then loses her – which angers Miami Man (Jason Momoa) – a muscleman man who is the girl’s father, and travels with him to get her back.
As with her first film, The Bad Batch is at its best when the actors are not speaking – Amirpour is nothing if not a gifted visual stylist, and her storytelling works best when she’s doesn’t seem to be trying so hard to make her thematic points. The film, which seems to be trying for some of what made Mad Max: Fury Road so effective as both a genre film and a political statement – but is undercut by billboards which pretty much announce the films subtext, or have a character named The Screamer (Giovanni Ribisi) literally scream it at certain points. The casting of other more famous actors – Keanu Reeves as the cult leader or Jim Carrey as a silent Hermit, who still manages to go over the top, read more as stunt casting than anything else. After the great opening, the film meanders through the rest of its story, full of side trips and detours, that don’t add much to the rest of the film.
Still, there is no denying Amirpour’s gifts as a visual stylist, and I have to give her credit for trying to make a film more ambitious than her debut here. Had she took a little more time to streamline the screenplay, and if she trusted that her subtext would come through without announcing it so well – and had she found actors more capable of delivering what she needs in the two most important roles than Waterhose and Momoa – The Bad Batch could have been the next great genre cult film it was clearly aiming to be. As it stands, it’s a film that shows Amirpour’s immense talent and potential, that doesn’t live up to either of those things. I cannot wait to see the film I know Amirpour can make where she nails it – but this isn’t it.