Director Ana Lily Amirpour described her debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as “the first Iranian vampire Spaghetti Western,” but even those colorful descriptors don’t account for all the meats in that genre stew. There’s also high-constrast black-and-white photography of film noir, the deadpan multiculturalism of Jim Jarmusch, a character who uncannily resembles James Dean, and an unmistakably modern jolt of intersectional feminism. In other words, Amirpour is not afraid to mix-and-match conceits and she’s fluent in multiple visual languages, to the point where every shot is arrestingly eccentric.
Yet the one serious problem with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is that it’s all conceit, the type of film that gets called a “mood piece” because the rich atmosphere compensates for the absence of characterization, tension, and narrative momentum — all of which may sound like banalities when speaking of high art, but which are essential to make genre films pop. That minor weakness morphs into a crippling liability in Amirpour’s disappointing follow-up, The Bad Batch, another cult-ready genre mash-up that dreams up a fascinating and beautiful dystopia, but fails to animate it with meaningful detail or dramatic life. Imagine Escape from New York as Languish in New York and you get the idea.
Though produced well before the 2016 election, The Bad Batch is serendipitously timed to critique an administration anxious to ramp up incarcerations and build a wall across the Mexican border. In Amirpour’s future world, society’s undesirables, called “the bad batch,” are banished to the other side of a fence separating Texas from the arid desert wasteland of a Mad Max movie. With no laws, no fertile land, and a crude economy that occasionally accepts “dream dollars” as currency, these outcasts are expected to fend for themselves in what amounts to a vast prison yard without guards. Though a makeshift society has developed out of the extreme poverty and transience, it’s still a Darwinian environment that favors the strong.
That spells trouble immediately for the film’s heroine, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who’s scooped up by a band of cannibals not long after getting processed. In a harrowing sequence, set to Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants,” Arlen has an arm and a leg lopped off for cannibal barbecue and the stumps crudely soldered off with the hot frying pan. She manages to escape by killing one of her captors and hobbling away the dead woman’s cherubic little girl, who turns out to be a precious commodity. When she makes her way to the community of Comfort, Arlen finds herself caught between two powerful men: The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a wealthy cult figure who dresses in pristine white and surrounds himself with the women he’s impregnated, and Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a cannibal who will stop at nothing to get the abducted girl back.
Amirpour sets the stage for an unlikely love story between Arlen and Miami Man, who may partake of human flesh, but… when in Rome, you know? But The Bad Batch doesn’t explicate their mysterious connection or much of anything else, and Amirpour’s rapturous images don’t fill in the gaps. For a full two hours, the film follows Arlen as she meanders passively through this terrain, but the connective tissue between one scene and the next is so thin that it’s hard to guess that’s motivating her or what threats might present themselves. We can only speculate about how “the bad batch” society developed and how it operates, much less what that might say about human nature or patriarchal power or social justice or any other relevant theme.
In the absence of narrative momentum, Amirpour floods the screen with intermittently striking sequences and stray instances of pure eccentricity. (Casting Giovanni Ribisi as a mentally imbalanced loner who speaks in a distracted mumble is as bad an idea as it sounds.) Much as her wasteland owes to Mad Max, El Topo, and the dustier examples of Spaghetti Westerns and Italian B-movies, Amirpour conjures up some beautiful images of her own, like an open-air rave where the DJ is encased in a giant neon boombox or the bombed-out airplane wreckage where the cannibal men roam around like the muscleheads near Santa Monica Pier. But The Bad Batch never organizes itself around a coherent idea or works up the urgency to pay off its premise. Arlen doesn’t have to be Furiosa, but her passivity mirrors Amirpour’s—both kick around a landscape they struggle to control.