Film Review | The Bad Batch

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  • 3/5

Broken batch: Suki Waterhouse is Arlen, a social outcast forced to survive among others of her ‘kind’ in this dystopian fever dream from Ana Lily Amirpour
Broken batch: Suki Waterhouse is Arlen, a social outcast forced to survive among others of her ‘kind’ in this dystopian fever dream from Ana Lily Amirpour

Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut feature film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2015), came with an irresistible premise. In fact, it had just the kind of ‘elevator pitch’ that most producers would salivate over. ‘Iranian Vampire Western’ just about covers it. But those expecting some of kind of hyper-accelerated slice of genre trash would have been sorely disappointed. While it takes some of the cosmetic elements of both the Western and vampire-based horror to tell a story of hard-won liberation, mood was king in this impeccably-soundtracked black-and-white feature, which wears its coolness like a badge and never lets its devolve into try-hard lameness.

Now, Amirpour is back with something of a rocky sophomore effort that nonetheless carries over traces of the same inspired talent that put her on the map.

In an undefined though seemingly near future, a young Texan girl named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is sent over the border and into the badlands for committing an undefined crime. We quickly learn that this has become standard procedure in this new America, where the ‘undesirables’ are tagged and left to fend for themselves in the dry wilderness. Dubbed ‘The Bad Batch’, the lucky ones among these social rejects get to spend time in drugged stupor at the outpost of ‘Comfort’, lorded over by a drug baron who calls himself The Dream (Keanu Reeves). However the less fortunate – like our very own Arlen – are left at the mercy of cannibal gangs. But while an arm-and-leg amputation doesn’t stop our heroine from sneaking past her captors, her subsequent quest for revenge actually lands her with a mission. Finding herself interlinked with the fate of a cannibal, Miami Man (Jason Momoa), she is tasked to sneak into Comfort to retrieve his lost daughter, the only thing this taciturn but dangerous man cares about in the world... though the simmering sexual tension between the two outcasts may muddy the waters even further. 

Yes, it’s all a bit of a thinly drawn out and sometimes overindulgent exercise and sure, characters walk in and off screen purely by function of deus ex machina – for all the supposed vastness of this bleak desert, everyone seems to be able to find each other (for the sake of encounters which only lead to more pain for all involved, more often than not). And although Reeves’s ‘The Dream’ is a delightfully devious addition – a piece of stunt casting as cheeky as getting Jim Carrey to play a barely recognizable and entirely mute roving hobo – the allegory of what he represents hits a tad too hard on the nose to be as clever and effective as Aminpour may wish. 

True to its genre roots – even if it’s more early Jodorowsky than Michael Bay – The Bad Batch is not a subtle movie, layered as its attempt at political allegory may be (a boundary wall is at the centre of the story and Momoa’s character is an undocumented Cuban migrant. You do the math). But what it lacks in subtlety and clearly defined plot trajectory, it more than makes up for with atmosphere.

This is a movie that values neither realism nor the ingrained ‘beats’ of the mainstream Hollywood genre flick; whose skin Aminpour is otherwise happy to put on and dance around in for the moody-and-violent ritual she’s set up for us. It’s a quest narrative that runs on psychedelic sensation; you emerge from it drunk on the sun-kissed, desolate beauty of the desert and the dystopian neon nightmare that frames its periphery. The not-so-secret ingredient that pushes the brew even deeper into the subconscious empire of the senses is the soundtrack. Sprinkling beloved pop-trash classics like Culture Club’s ‘Karma Chameleon’ and Ace of Base’s ‘All That She Wants’ on a darker, moodier bed made up of recent indie pop and electro favourites from the likes of Darkside, Pantha du Prince and Nicolas Jaar (with a memorable contribution from South Africa’s crowing jewels of weird-pop, Die Antwoord), it makes for such a carefully curated sonic counterpoint to the visuals that it would even make the likes of Quentin Tarantino blush.

And in fact, Amirpour’s film feels like the kind of grindhouse/midnight movie specials that the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez have been straining to make cool and relevant again. Except, owing to her willingness to blend the brutal with the sublime, and risking to lose our patience and attention with sequences that trail outwards where more ‘professional’ Hollywood counterparts would just cut to the chase, this rising star auteur allows us to actually feel out the textures of the genres she blends into the brew. 

Sexual tension: Waterhouse and Momoa
Sexual tension: Waterhouse and Momoa

So yes, it might feel overlong – even dragging – for some. But The Bad Batch is an excellent example of a idiosyncratic filmmaker making fun and confrontational pop art. It just about falls short of becoming an instant cult masterpiece due to some smug sermonising and an easy recourse to facile irony that tends to dissolve into hollow posture more often than not. But as a visual and sonic delight, and powered by its willingness to play dirty every step of the way, it remains a worthwhile trip into the fabulous vortex of oblivion. 


The Bad Batch is currently streaming on Netflix