[This is a re-post of my The Bad Batch review from the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie opens in limited release on June 23rd.]
With her Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour burst onto the scene as an incredibly exciting filmmaker to watch. The black-and-white picture was crafted with verve, vigor, and an undeniable coolness that permeated throughout as Amirpour presented a wonderfully feminist spin on the vampire genre. So it was with great anticipation that I approached her follow-up film, the post-apocalyptic, cannibal-centric The Bad Batch. Visually, Amirpour steps up her game, conjuring some truly stunning imagery with a killer soundtrack to boot. And while the film gets off to a rollicking start, it begins to falter as it moves on, eventually unraveling into a supremely disappointing third act that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be.
The Bad Batch opens with an explosive prologue that submerses viewers into Amirpour’s post-apocalyptic world. At this unspecified date, the United States of America has opted to dispose of its undesirables—murderers, drug dealers, illegal immigrants, etc.—into a wasteland in or near Texas that, officially, is not part of the United States. Those deemed part of the “Bad Batch” are tattooed with a number and dropped off outside an electric fence with nothing but the clothes on their back and a fast food cheeseburger in their hand. To make matters worse, the land which the Bad Batch inhabit is a desert—natural wildlife are in short supply, thus some have reverted to cannibalism in order to survive.
The heroine of the story is a young girl named Arlen, played by Suki Waterhouse, who seems fine and dandy roaming the wasteland for her first hour or so until she’s snatched up by cannibals and subsequently has her arm and leg removed and eaten. Such is our introduction to The Bad Batch, but the story reignites when Waterhouse escapes the cannibals and finds refuge in a town called Comfort, which is run by a mysterious cult leader played by a mustachioed Keanu Reeves, very much hamming it up in his Pablo Escobar lookalike ‘do. Through a series of events, Arlen comes into contact with one of the cannibal members, a tattoo-laden man of few words played by Jason Momoa, and the film somewhat switches gears from a revenge tale to a more dramatic version of Midnight Run.
Unfortunately, after the film’s explosive first act, the plot begins to meander with Amirpour trying to fit too many ideas into one movie. References abound, from Mad Max to Aliens to Sixteen Candles, but it’s as if the film can’t quite decide which lane to choose. Amirpour makes an effort to channel all of these vibes in the same movie, and at times it works, but it really begins to fall apart in a third act full of puzzling character decisions.
That’s not to say The Bad Batch isn’t without merit. Amirpour remains one of the most exciting filmmakers working today, conjuring sumptuous visuals with her A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night DP Lyle Vincent and infusing this thing with a rockin’ soundtrack. Waterhouse, moreover, plays brooding well in a role that has almost no dialogue for the first 40 minutes, and Jim Carrey is downright unrecognizable as a mute, sun-drenched hermit. It’s when the dialogue-driven portion of the film kicks in that the movie frustratingly begins to lose its way, and Arlen as a whole—much like most of the film—comes up short.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night had such a clear and cohesive vision of theme that it’s surprising to see The Bad Batch struggle to fully realize its thematic potential. There are plenty of ideas, from a comment on American social status to the value of beauty, but most are too half-baked to ever truly flourish. There’s a lot going on, but none of it really adds up to much. Moreover, the film takes a tonal turn towards its tail end that arrives as if out of nowhere, with little basis for it to exist at all given the 90 plus minutes that precede it.