The Bad Batch opens with a lingering shot of a sign that says, “Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. That hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized, or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good Luck.”
That sign is the foundation of director Ana Lily Amirpour’s extensive world building in her sophomore film. Amirpour struck gold with her directorial debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The vampire spaghetti western used very little dialogue and mainly relied on the universe that it inhabited. The Bad Batch is a similar concept and feels like a Mad Max film directed by Robert Rodriguez. It’s gritty and dirty but doesn’t rely on shock value to move the film forward.
The film follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), an ex-convict who is now a part of the “Bad Batch,” a group of people rejected from society. She’s kicked in a barren wasteland left to fend for herself against cannibals that rule the land. When they eventually capture her, Arlen’s limbs are sawed off for dinner, and she barely escapes with her life. After being saved by a homeless mute (played by an unrecognizable Jim Carrey), she’s brought to “Comfort,” a town that thrives on drugs and hedonism. Their leader is a man simply called The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who sports a 70’s porn mustache and pregnant concubines with machine guns. Reeves can talk about human feces like it’s holistic mumbo jumbo and we will buy every single word of it.
The first 19 minutes of the film purely silent and lets the camera do the talking. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent utilizes wide camera shots to illustrate the vast nothingness of this world. Despite having so much space, it’s claustrophobic and gives us a sense of hopelessness. It’s when the dialogue starts to become more frequent that the film starts to falter. After losing his daughter, good-guy cannibal, Miami Man (Jason Mamoa) forces Arlen to find her in Comfort. What starts as a threatening business transaction evolves into a romance with sexual tension that can be cut through with a knife. But there is not enough foundation to make their romance believable. It just sort of happens, and we’re expected to accept it despite not knowing either of these characters for too long.
Amirpour can’t seem to decide whether she wanted to create a mood piece or a plot-driven film. The first half of the film does a splendid job of world building and developing Arlen’s self-esteem issues after being dismembered. Even though she gets a prosthetic leg, she’s still left without an arm, making her feel less than a woman. She cuts out models’ arms from magazines and puts them on mirrors to imagine herself being whole again. That development gets put on the back-burner when she introduces the kidnapping plot, and it doesn’t really recover after that. She’s either falling in love with Miami Man or being saved by him. If anything, it does her character a disservice.
The Bad Batch, once again, illustrates Amirpour’s immense talent at worldbuilding. It’s very much a metaphor for a post-Trump society, complete with its own wall (though we don’t know who paid for it). Despite The Bad Batch’s weak story, Amirpour’s signature style makes her a filmmaker to look out for in not just the indie world, but also mainstream films. If George Miller ever wanted to drop out of the Mad Max franchise, Amirpour should be next up on the list.