Caught a press screening of The Bad Batch, the new movie by Ana Lily Amirpour, who made a splash in 2014 with her quirky Iranian vampire movie A Girl Walks Alone at Night, which was shot in California. That established Amirpour as a filmmaker with a unique voice, and now she’s working on a bigger budget with known actors and a larger canvas.
The Bad Batch takes place in an unspecified near-future where America rounds up undesirables, illegal immigrants, the mentally ill, the criminal and expels them across the border to fend for themselves in the desert. These people are called “the bad batch”, society’s cast-offs, the poor, the ones America would rather not see or acknowledge, a notion that carries a lot of subtext in the current political climate. The latest of the bad batch is Arlen, a sullen young woman locked out of America whose first hours out in the desert don’t go well. She’s quickly captured by The Bridge People, a loose community of cannibals who chop off her arm and leg for food and keep her for the next meals. But Arlen isn’t the type to just lay down and wait to die. She fights, and escapes, even with two limbs missing, and makes it out of the camp into the desert, and the vague rumor of a sanctuary community called Comfort turns out to be real, and she’s saved.
After a few months where she heals and gets an artificial leg, Arlen is restless. She can’t let things go. She picks up a gun and heads back out looking for revenge. This sets in motion a chain of events where I couldn’t predict where things would go, which is a refreshing change from a lot of Hollywood movies where every single plot point is so predictable I could set my watch by them. Amirpour is clearly a director with a talent for mood, location and eliciting interesting performances from actors. Her sympathy for society’s outsiders shines through, and there’s some awareness of the metaphorical layers of the story as it relates to the current mood in America. However, it’s a lack of a sense of political engagement that makes the movie fall short. Simply showing things isn’t enough of a point of view. She sets up interesting dystopian scenarios but doesn’t follow up on any of them. You expect an epic clash of ideologies and communities, but that never happens and the movie ends up being rather shallow. There’s some social commentary threatening to pour out of the story but it never quite comes. This is what you would expect of an apocalyptic Spaghetti Western produced by Vice: gorgeous, grungy, gritty visuals, an epic landscape, marginalized people, drug trips, violence, killer music, and a surreal rave in the desert, and too bad it doesn’t go deeper. You could accuse this of being a hipster movie and you’d have a point.
Despite its flaws, it’s still worth seeing. There’s a sense of anything goes you don’t find in many movies. There’s a refusal to paint characters as just good or evil. Characters who do monstrous things will turn around and be capable of great tenderness. Jason Momoa is a surprisingly soulful gangster-cannibal of the Bridge people with a talent for art, desperately searching for his missing daughter. Jim Carrey is virtually unrecognizable as a craggy, sunburned scavenger who doesn’t say a word but carries an entire history of a hard, sad life as he unhesitatingly shows compassion to anyone in need. Keanu Reeves does an unexpected turn as The Dream, the leader of Comfort who functions as a benevolent dictator, cult leader and drug lord with his harem of doting, pregnant bodyguards – it’s not an accident here that he’s made to look like the aboriginal dreamtime version of Pablo Escobar. And at the centre of the movie is Suki Waterhouse as the sullen, stubborn Arlen, the seemingly blank, know-nothing white girl who can’t ignore her barely-defined need to do the right thing. It’s a movie of small, incidental pleasures under a glaring, unforgiving desert sky. Amirpour can only get better as a filmmaker, and hopefully her next script will have a lot more substance.
The Bad Batch opens on June 23rd.
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