The night before I saw The Bad Batch (2017), I had the good fortune to attend a promotional screening of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), followed by a Q&A with director Ana Lily Amirpour. When Amirpour was asked to give a brief description of her next film, she replied with an effortless intellectualism that, in a lesser artist, would have been mistook for pretension: “The Bad Batch is like my love letter to America. But the things I love aren’t perfect. They’re mutants.”
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night made waves as a charming and visually irreproachable bit of intersectional horror. Never quite taking itself too seriously, A Girl weaves black humor with F.W. Murnau fright in something that could only be called pastiche by a souless thin-beard film snob without a sense of joy. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is funny, terrifying, and so well shot it’s a crime it hasn’t made it into more cinematography rankings. After my rewatch last Thursday night, however, I was reminded at how subtly the film articulates its themes. The poignant imagery of phallic oil drills and body-laden ditches in the film’s “Iranian ghost-town Bad City” certainly call to mind the patriarchal imperialism of America in the Middle East. The exploitative revenge-feminism of the titular character, who kills thuggish gangsters and threatens little boys to “be good” lest she cut out their eyes, stitches up the thematic rind of Amirpour’s work. These themes are teased out in a way that only complements, not governs, the story. Amirpour’s first outing is intersectionalist, feminist, and anti-imperialist to be sure, but it’s first and foremost a deeply personal rumination on loneliness and love. After the screening, Amirpour described the main character of her debut future: “It’s kind of like if everyone else at the party is tripping on ecstasy, and she’s the only one who’s not.”
The Bad Batch certainly aspires to loftier socio-politics than Amirpour’s first film. While her auteurism is still on display – The Bad Batch also features a lonely female lead with mysterious motivations, albeit without the bloodlust – Amirpour instead chooses to focus more on world-building and sci-fi politicking. The film opens with Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a convicted felon assigned to “the Bad Batch,” being escorted through a Trumpian chain-link fence by two paunchy white border patrol agents. As a shot of a warning sign beyond the fence is soon to reveal, the border here is not between the U.S. and Mexico, but between Texas and a desolate tract of desert known only as “the Bad Batch” – a lawless waste populated solely by criminals America has deemed too dangerous, irredeemable, or expensive to keep locked up.
It’s not a particularly original sci-fi story. Films such as The Running Man (1987), Escape from New York (1981), and the unimpeachable Terminal Island (1973) have all played with the concept of imprisonment-by-isolation. For her version, Amirpour dreams up a wasteland worthy of George Miller in which the exiled “Bad Batch” has divided itself into two camps – ‘Comfort,’ populated by bad people unwilling to surrender the base luxuries of society, and ‘The Bridge,’ where muscle-bound meatheads kidnap new prisoners and feast on their flesh, one limb at a time.
Poor Arlen is scooped up by two of these ‘Bridge People’ just hours after arriving at the Bad Batch. After losing an arm and a leg to the cannibals (never fear, the joke “it cost you an arm and a leg to get here” will indeed be delivered later on by the-One-and-only Keanu Reeves himself), Arlen barely manages to escape with the aid of fucking-I-shit-you-not Jim Carrey (Hermit), who carries her to Comfort. After that, The Bad Batch aligns pretty well with the broad-strokes plot of A Girl Walks Home: boy has family problems. Girl is lonely. Boy and girl meet through unorthodox means. Boy and girl become friends out of necessity. Boy and girl try to make a break for the sunset.
Much like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, The Bad Batch waits until halfway through the film before actually imposing a plot, and accompanying stakes, on its characters. All the vignettes and exposition leading up to the reveal of Arlen’s quest are important – and they all contribute in some way to her eventual success and/or failure – but like any good Gamemaster, Amirpour withholds their significance for the right moment. The Bad Batch escapes the worst of the sophomore slump by the grace of this deliberation alone. Despite feeling a bit bloated, there is nothing superfluous or wasted. Even the moments of self-indulgent imagery – including an acid-trip sequence that feels like the technical evolution of a similar scene in A Girl Walks Home Alone – are so resplendent that it’s hard to feel jilted by having just spent six uninterrupted minutes watching the coquettish Waterhouse wander bemused through the desert.
The inclusion of Jason Momoa as the hulking Cubano Miami Man adds a layer of ambiguity to The Bad Batch that A Girl Walks Home Alone does not have. In Amirpour’s first film, the male lead Arash (Arash Marandi) is well-defined by sympathetic goals and pained obstacles. The enigma of The Girl (Sheila Vand) is better contextualized and experienced through the audience’s grounded empathy with Arash. In The Bad Batch, however, both Waterhouse’s Arlen and Momoa’s Miami Man are operating with unclear motives for a good chunk of the film. It is indeed eventually revealed that Miami Man wants his daughter back – and is fairly uncomplicated otherwise – but Arlen seems unpossessed of any desire beyond finding a place in this hellish world that isn’t The Bridge or Comfort. Compared to a misanthropic vampire’s poignant need for human contact in A Girl Walks Home Alone, this is a pretty weak internal struggle. Even if it’s possible to sympathize with Arlen’s search for an oasis, The Bad Batch essentially asks its audience to care about two threadbare characters for half its runtime.
The world-building in The Bad Batch is, unsurprisingly, excellent. The ramshackle stucco ghost-town of Bad City in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night speaks to Amirpour and Co’s knack for mise en scene, and although the production designer on A Girl sadly passed away before The Bad Batch went into production, the filmmakers have done an exceptional job of crafting a barebones desert dystopia. The Bridge is strewn with airplane parts, evoking the symbolism of technological decay and a savage macho-primitivism. Comfort, meanwhile, is a Blade Runner (1982) set transposed to Hunter S. Thompson’s Nevada. The denizens are a grotesque mix of runaway amputees and dipsomaniacs. The economy somehow still functions and storekeepers sell rabbit burgers and prostheses. Hell, even the toilets still work, as is revealed in a devilish monologue from none other than The Dream himself, Keanu Reeves.
The American phenomenon of Keanu Reeves deserves a multi-volume treatise, so I won’t waste time trying to sluice out the abridged version. Suffice to say casting this mega-star as the greasy chieftain of Comfort and ruler of its pregnant Uzi-toting concubines is the definition of a power-move. Reeves’ The Dream is equal parts Immortan Joe [Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)] and Mr. Burns. He’s only in about fifteen minutes of the film, but shit is it a hell of a fifteen minutes.
Maybe it’s the uninspired anti-capitalist thematization. Maybe it’s the underwritten characters. Maybe it’s the regressive lack of intersectionality or the questionable casting of Jason Momoa as a heavily-accented Cuban immigrant. Ultimately, however, the greatest flaw in Amirpour’s second outing is the quicksand trap of many an indie filmmaker: pacing. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a slow burn, but it’s a consistently slow burn. The fine and tempered pacing rewards audience’s patience with truly funny and deeply frightening moments and a climax so anxiety-inducing it prompted one woman in the audience to proclaim, “This movie makes me feel like a fucking chihuahua.” The Bad Batch, however, cannot seem to make up its mind about how fast to move. The first chunk alternates between breakneck and languorous. By the time the movie settles into a steady trot, it’s almost too late – I had become so acclimated to the uncertainty in pacing that I spent the entire last thirty minutes of the movie wondering when it was going to speed up or slow down again, until all of a sudden it was over.
The sophomore slump is such a ubiquitous trope in art that it might as well be a tautology. That said, Amirpour’s effort here is as exemplary as any second feature I’ve ever seen. At that aforementioned A Girl Walks Home Alone screening, she complained about still needing to tour with her first feature: “Talking about a film you made three years ago is like talking about a person you were in love with three years ago.” Like so much of Amirpour’s work, it’s a flawless analogy.
The only problem is, it seems like her ex is still looking a lot better than her current muse.
As beautiful and well-crafted as her first feature, Amirpour’s second outing lacks a certain something beneath the surface, but still shines.