A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was an unexpected marvel. Coming from debutant director Ana Lily Amirpour, the image of a sharp-toothed, chador-donning Iranian woman cruising through desolate streets on a skateboard was one of the most striking and memorable images of 2014. Hailed as an Iranian-American vampire spaghetti western, this neo-noir romantic horror broke the boundaries of genre to create a truly unique and visionary experience, building great buzz around what Amirpour’s next project would entail.
Flash forward to 2017, and the arrival of her sophomore offering, The Bad Batch. Again merging elements of multiple genres, the film blends dystopian cannibal-horror, romance, black comedy, western, and post-apocalyptic action; nothing if not ambitious. Set in a deadly desert wasteland, where going for a relaxing evening stroll may result in the loss of limbs, survival is unlikely, and understanding Jason Momoa’s Cuban accent is even more improbable. Who inhabits these ravaged plains? That would be the bad batch, those deemed unworthy to function within American society, pushed across the border into uncharted territory. The criminals, the disabled, the poor, the foreign; anyone unwanted has been imprinted with a number and pushed out of the country, separated by a guarded wall (ring any bells?).
With proof of her directorial abilities in the bag, Amirpour has assembled a high-profile cast to play her desert-dwellers. Jason Momoa plays a muscle cannibal known only as Miami Man, a title he has boldly tattooed across his chest for the world to see. This is an unpredictable man of opposing qualities; in one scene we see him sketch a portrait of his daughter while comforting her, before storming outside and butchering his family’s dinner: a female prisoner.
Political allegory continues in a town called Comfort, the closest thing to resembling a functioning community that this desert has to offer. On the surface, the town appears to live up to its name, providing its inhabitants with all their necessary requirements and forming a safe and friendly haven. But the town is ruled by Keanu Reeves’ ego-centric cult leader The Dream. Lecherous and insincere, he is always surrounded by an entourage of young, pregnant bodyguards, and offers some form of spiritual enlightenment on a sign outside his abode, stating that ‘You can’t enter the dream until the dream has entered you’.
Another big name attached to the project is Jim Carrey, although in such a small, speechless role that he was absent from the marketing material. He is a mute old man, wandering through the wasteland collecting salvage, and helping desperate travelers with no expectation of reciprocation. Almost unrecognizable under a thick bushy beard, he acts as a rare figure of compassion and virtue in a world of hatred and evil.
So how do these men fit into the wider narrative? They are all encountered by fellow outcast and central protagonist Arlene (Suki Waterhouse), as she attempts to find safety and fulfillment in her new surroundings. Things don’t get off to the best start for Arlene, losing an arm and a leg after being kidnapped by Miami Man’s gang of barbaric cannibals, but she soon adapts and acquires a prosthetic leg, reclaiming her capability to roam the desert.
These all sound like fascinating and creatively imagined characters, but they are dull and lifeless thanks to a lack of dialogue, or clunky dialogue when it is present. While the lack of dialogue in ‘Girl Walks Home’ created a meditative and visceral tone, and the lack of characterization led to mysterious and mythical figures, we scarcely get to know the characters on display here, and we don’t much care to.
Miami Man is not a complex character and has no mystery shrouding him, therefore it is not compelling to watch him brooding around the desert moodily, flexing his muscles and having inconsequential encounters with other aimless roamers. He eventually partakes in a thinly conceived and too-little-too-late romance with Arlene, which is perplexing considering her actions earlier in the narrative. The Dream is certainly an amusing idea, and Reeves gives his all in the role, but he is severely underused, essentially only appearing to give two brief monologues. If his character had have been made integral to the narrative in some way, a compelling narrative could have surely been crafted, but he is merely used as an allegory for elitism and the illusion of freedom, and we are left with a messy, meandering plot that eventually leads us nowhere.
It is difficult not to hold The Bad Batch up to her previous film as they are both doing similar things to extremely different degrees of success. The cinematography which so well captured an eerie and gothic Iranian town is not dissimilar here, but it does a poor job of highlighting the stretching landscapes and open frontier, instead of making it feel strangely small and enclosed. Characters are rarely alone for longer than a minute before being confronted or detected by other wandering strangers, making the setting feel more like a small sandbox than expansive terrain. Different locations within this unruly, outdoor prison are tonally uneven and disjointed, preventing the audience from getting a feel for this world as a whole, and even the eclectic, electronic soundtrack is somewhat hit and miss, but perfectly suits the neon steampunk aesthetic on occasion (particularly Black Light Smoke’s ‘Firefly’).
Due to this nonsensical, wavering plot, and loosely developed characters, the film is stripped of intrigue, and nowhere near as interesting as it thinks it is. The ambition and visual creativity on display here has to be applauded, and there is little doubt that Amirpour will go on to make far better films, but The Bad Batch is, unfortunately, a bad film.