The Bad Batch
A dystopian love story in a Texas wasteland and set in a community of cannibals.
June 23rd, 2017
Ana Lily Amirpour
Ana Lily Amirpour
There’s an ages-old phrase which can be trusted to sum up a particular piece of art (a book, a film, a television show) in just three simple words.
“Style over substance”.
And if you’re looking for a prime film example where this catchy phrase perfectly fits the bill – then you’ve got a winner in Ana Lily Amirpour’s (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) latest film, The Bad Batch.
It’s a dystopian future-world where the ne’er-do-wells and career criminals are tattoo-labeled with a “BB” followed by a number. “BB” stands for “Bad Batch” and these drains on society are then thrown into a vast, gated wasteland somewhere in Texas (think a desert version of the island prison in Carpenter’s Escape from New York). We’re introduced to this place when a young woman named Arlen (Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’ Suki Waterhouse) is tossed into this desolate, hopeless place. She’s quickly snatched up by a group of cannibals, headed by Miami Man (Aquaman himself; Jason Mamoa). She’s disfigured by the group, but is able to escape to a welcoming, sort of hippie commune called “Comfort” (a more low-key verson of “Bartertown” in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). That place is headed up by The Dream (played by Keanu Reeves). A series of events leads to Arlen taking custody of Miami Man’s little girl – and a relationship sprouts up between Arlen and Miami Man.
Now, I’ve not had a ton of exposure to “arthouse” films, but that’s what The Bad Batch feels like. I wouldn’t be able to list one problem with any of the technical pieces.
The cinematography and editing are simply stunning (there’s a lengthy drug hallucination sequence which is almost mind-altering for the viewer). The costumes and elaborate sets are top-notch. The makeup effects (including several dismemberments and scenes of cannibalism) are impressive. And when Arlen walks around for the majority of the film with only one leg and one arm – those visual effects (out of the Lt. Dan of Forrest Gump playbook) – well, I was totally sold on the illusion.
I don’t particularly recall the score of the film, but the songs chosen to accentuate several scenes (including Culture Club’s Karma Chameleon) are perfectly suited to every bit of action happening on the screen. Frankly if a soundtrack is ever released, I’ll be on the buying end of that.
Putting aside that this is in fact what most would loosely term an “arthouse flick” – it was boring as hell. Nothing happens. I’ll quickly throw it out there that in the film’s final moments, I had a little tickle in my heart. It managed to slightly endear itself to me. But I can’t forget all of the lengthy sequences which came before, where all that happened was a bunch of characters wandering aimlessly in the desert.
On that note, the film meanders. Nothing feels solid, and character actions (other than Mamoa’s Miami Man) seem to have no meaning. A fun anecdote about this screening experience. The representative at this particular showing stated that the film was 158 minutes. There were groans from this room full of critics. 158 minutes is a massive undertaking no matter how you look at it. Of course, he was corrected and the film is actually 1 hour 58 minutes. The point I’m making is – I was bored and sleepy through even a 2 hour film – can you imagine the pain if this particular film actually were 2 hours and 38 minutes long? I shudder to think of such a thing…
I recall greatly enjoying the arty feel of Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. But I don’t recall it being so substance-less. There was a real character and a real story mixed in with the beautiful photography.
The Bad Batch is probably 70% without any dialogue. So it seems fitting that the best performance from this ensemble, is Jim Carrey. He plays a generous and kind scavenger named simply “Hermit”. Carrey’s name didn’t show up in the opening credits, so when he first appeared in the film, I said to myself, “Is that Jim Carrey? That can’t be Jim Carrey”. But indeed it was. He has no dialogue, but provides the most powerful performance in the entire film. Even in his few moments on-screen, his scene with Mamoa and what amounts to a “portrait sitting” is just marvelous.
Mamoa does a nice job (but how can you not be distracted by those pecs?) and you genuinely believe in his ongoing journey to locate his lost daughter. There is some actual sympathy for this head of a cannibalistic clan – so that’s something uniquely in the film’s favor. His chemistry with Waterhouse is pretty genuine.
But that doesn’t mean that Waterhouse is able to carry the film. I was impressed with her physical work in the film (the scene of Arlen pushing her “trimmed” body through the desert on a skateboard was impressive), but as a whole – specifically when she actually speaks – the performance feels like a vapid “art-house” experience. Which I guess works in the context of the film itself.
Giovanni Ribisi is a fantastic actor, but I simply don’t understand his presence in the film as one of the townsfolk in Comfort. The character is pointless – offering absolutely nothing to help move the story along. One has to wonder why he was even cast – it’s a throwaway role for a lesser-known actor. I don’t get it.
And then there’s Keanu Reeves. It’s sort of an interesting role – this long-haired, moustachied leader of what is basically a harem – wearing a pair of glasses from the George A. Romero collection. Reeves wasn’t a good choice for this role – he’s just too “blah”. And his speech about “The Dream” was painful (both in the writing and the performance).
Even though the film is beautiful, I still have to throw out the term “masturbatory”, for so much of it is just designed to show off the technical and imaginative prowess of Amirpour and her crew. But ultimately, if it’s serving a shallow story with practically no-dimension characters – what’s the point? Put your talents to better use.
A marvelous wonder of visual delights, The Bad Batch offers very little beyond that. You could probably watch it with the sound off (were it not for the eclectically lovely song choices) and simply enjoy how pretty it looks. You’re probably saying, “But if I have the sound off, I won’t be able to follow the story or get to know the characters!” Sound on or sound off, you won’t miss anything.
The Bad Batch is scheduled for release on June 23rd, 2017.