Synopsis – A love story set in a community of cannibals in a future dystopia. In a desert wasteland in Texas, a muscled cannibal breaks one important rule: don’t play with your food.
My Take – Ever since I saw Iranian director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), I have been keenly awaiting her next venture. Hitting my radar with her interesting choice of cast & an interesting selection of genre i.e. romance & science fiction, this film seemed to proclaim to a confirmation that director Ana Lily Amirpour would be considered as one of the most interesting new directors out there. However, despite an exciting premise that featured a Mad Max-esque lawless wasteland, a likable star cast, and a cannibalism twist, the film was wholly underwhelming. It’s surprising as director Amirpour‘s previous venture, felt like it knew what it wanted to be and had some real atmosphere to it, in contrast, this film feels very under-written and has a very underwhelming lead. Hey, I am always up for cerebral, off color, non-conformist, anti-Hollywood type films and praise those who make them. I am not, however, a fan of films that aim high to be recognized as deeply artistic and thought provoking when the film fails miserably in achieving that goal. There are at least four known actors in this mess and there is hardly any dialog through almost two hours of its run time. I get it, often silence and facial expression and body language speaks volumes, but only if done right. Director Amirpour’s break thought feminist Iranian vampire tale was even more wordless, and it worked because the director was so excellent at swooning her camera on the finely tuned performances she elicits from her cast, unfortunately, here, tedious is the first word that comes to mind to describe this film, mainly as the story line and plot are all over the place.
Set in near future America where criminals, weirdos, and other misfits and misanthropes are part of the so-called bad batch are tattooed with a number and shipped off to a lawless wasteland somewhere south of Texas, the story follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), an ex-convict who is kicked into the barren wasteland left to fend for herself. Scooped by a group of body-building cannibals, within minutes, Arlen wakes up to find herself captured & has her leg and arm amputated barbarically. Being resourceful & scrappy, Arlen eventually finds a way to escape into the grueling desert. Picked up by a scummy, toothless drifter (Jim Carrey) & left at a town called Comfort, a community of Bad Batchers, surrounded by fences and shipping crates, were people live in a relatively better situation. You can get noodles for a dollar in Comfort and live in a house, and hang out in a skate park or you can live in a tent by the fence and yell a lot, like the Screamer (Giovanni Ribisi). Benevolently ruled by a man guarded by a horde of pregnant, nubile young women known as the Dream (Keanu Reeves), who gives its residents hallucinatory drugs to apparently live the life. He throws parties deejayed by Jimmy (Diego Luna) and illuminated by neon lights against the desert sky. Despite almost recovering psychologically from the trauma bestowed upon her, Arlen decides to take revenge on the cannibal herd for losing her limbs, & seizes the opportunity to straight up murder the wife of Miami Man (Jason Mamoa), the musclebound cannibal leader of her former captors. Conflicted by her action, Arlen allows Miami Man’s little daughter, Miel (Jayda Fink), to follow her into Comfort and provides her a rabbit as a companion. While she slows begins to take up a motherly role, the blood thirty father reaches the camp looking for his daughter. The film has an interesting concept, if not a particularly original one: The desert is ostensibly a prison colony filled with unrepentant sinners who would rather be left to their own devices than forced to live by others’ whims. Whether such a life is sustainable is a question; it seems that, at least in the world of this film, people still ache to follow someone strong. Even those who fancy themselves rebels want a leader. The first half of the film is remarkably strong filmmaking, largely because director Amirpour lets loose her imagination and tells the story just how she wants. The first 19 minutes of the film purely silent and lets the camera do the talking. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent utilizes wide camera shots to illustrate the vast nothingness of this world. Despite having so much space, it’s claustrophobic and gives us a sense of hopelessness. It’s when the dialogue starts to become more frequent that the film starts to falter. There’s next to no dialogue for almost half the film; life is so brutish and nasty in the wasteland that most of the people who exist there are beyond language. For her sophomore feature, director Ana Lily Amirpour goes headfirst in terms of making something which borrows from a range of influences and feelings to deliver an atmosphere which feels so familiar yet disconnected from what we’re used to seeing, even in this subgenre. It can’t be said that she goes into the deep end, unfortunately most of the film is resolutely shallow. The film becomes a grueling exercise with long stretches of silence and a kind of incoherence which beckons the viewer to keep going to the end to find some form of deeper meaning. It is a unique experience, clearly, one which few other filmmakers would undertake, especially with its premise and ensemble. The film is so concerned with getting us to ask questions that it becomes an incoherent mess. Some intriguing ideas about bodies, self-image, and the way we consume one another are raised and dropped: all the cannibals are body-builders; Arlen leaves through a porn magazine, then cuts out a picture of a woman’s arm so she can imagine herself with her severed limb restored.
Then there are the spaces between communities in the desert, the gaps in our perception. Jim Carrey’s helpful homeless man seems to live in this barren no man’s land, where he feels secure enough to act altruistically — he saves both Arlen and Miami Man. But how does he live? Presumably not on people, but the only alternative place we know of where food is readily available is Comfort. The film suggests that survival outside Comfort is possible, but doesn’t give us any idea of how or why. We also never find out what Arlen did to become part of the Bad Batch because it doesn’t matter. Other than a brief close-up of Arlen’s ear being tattooed with her Bad Batch number, we never see a single visual of the outside world. Everyone in this film is a blank slate, defined by how they behave in this extreme environment. Maybe it’s odd of me to expect character from a moody would-be cult film, but Arlen’s lack of character causes the film to implode around her. She doesn’t want anything, doesn’t need anything, has no sense of motivation or an internal life. She just kind of wanders around. For a film with such a strange world, it’s too content with being listless. Arlen is a non-character surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. The only character who has a past — a life before the Bad Batch — is cannibal leader Miami Man. He wasn’t exiled to the Bad Batch for gangs or drugs, as Arlen speculates, but for being an illegal immigrant. It doesn’t take much to get cast out in this world. This backstory seems designed to make us feel sentimental and wonder how much of Miami Man’s behavior is simply a product of the world he’s been forced into. The Dream, by contrast, has adapted and thrives outside the law; in Comfort, he’s created his own kingdom. It’s never made explicit, but we’re led to infer that there must be some deal or collusion between The Dream and the government regarding the Bad Batch left behind. The first act, or “the cannibalism part” was the strongest for me as an introduction to this world. The sense of decay, abandonment, and building a home only with scraps makes for a stylish and distinct look that I fully enjoyed. However, as the film progressed and I saw more coverage of the film, there are aspects that made it less compelling and outright uncomfortable at times. The film is a clear case of style over substance to the point of being grating. It’s a huge comedown from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and something that probably would have worked better with a tighter, less aimless edit. It does look great and should you need something to put on in the background of your next house party, this would be an inspired choice. I have to commend director Amirpour and her crew for putting the “vision” in visionary, even if the film itself is largely pointless. I hope the next project she undertakes displays the essence she brought to her first feature, where aesthetic and story can be placed on equal ground. The actors are passable. Suki Waterhouse seems to be going for some kind of accent but certainly doesn’t work. It’s unfortunate that this rising actress has such a bland role here, herby making her seem very unremarkable. Jason Momoa doesn’t fare much better as his character is inexplicably Cuban and he really struggles through. However, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey are likable in their cameos. Deigo Luna is wasted. On the whole, ‘The Bad Batch’ is a long, ponderous & self-indulgent film with just a bunch of sets, locations & a primary cast but with no compelling story to tell.
Directed – Ana Lily Amirpour
Rated – R
Run Time – 118 minutes