Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour is one of the most provocative filmmakers working today, but you might not realize it because her films also happen to be works of art worthy of a great deal of contemplation. Her previous feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was a bold, stunning feminist vampire story, made all the more intriguing by having it set in Iran. But her latest, the grungy, ragged The Bad Batch, is more of an endurance test as it mines the possibilities of a society without rules, occupied by society’s outcasts and undesirables.
Although we presume the story is set in the far future, there are probably those in power right now who would love to have the nation’s unwanted rounded up and thrown behind a giant fence in a central Texas desert. We’re never actually told what one has to do to be tossed into one of these hell-on-earth locations, but you can bet the resulting collection of humans are not happy to be there—with each pocket of existence finding a way to stay alive. The film opens with a young woman named Arden (Suki Waterhouse) being declared a member of the “Bad Batch” and tossed on the wrong side of the fence, where she is soon knocked out and dragged to some camp, where she soon has an arm and leg sawed off and her wounds brutally cauterized. She soon discovers that she’s been captured by a group that had chosen cannibalism as a means of survival, and they want to keep her alive as long as possible to get the most out of her various edible body parts.
Shockingly enough, she escapes to another, seemingly more civilized group run by The Dream (a mustachioed Keanu Reeves), who treats his extended family like they’re part of a non-stop Burning Man experience, which its has pluses and minuses. We learn bits and pieces about Arlen’s life, and it turns out that she is likely in this hellhole part of Texas because she kept bad company more than she herself belongs there. She just wants to hang out and enjoy good company, something that is in short supply around these parts.
Major portions of The Bad Batch are like a terrifying fever dream, occupied by the likes of Giovanni Ribisi as The Screamer, a crazy man in The Dream’s camp; Diego Luna; and an unrecognizable, unspeaking Jim Carrey as a hermit that wanders the desert and always seems to stumble upon people just when they need saving the most. The scariest character in the film is simply called Miami Man (Jason Momoa, soon to be DC’s Aquaman), the leader of the cannibals, who is looking to get payback for someone dear to him being killed and someone else being kidnapped.
The Bad Batch doesn’t seem in a particular hurry to get from one place to another, which doesn’t mean it’s slow, especially since each new place seems stranger and more demented than the last. A known film buff, Amirpour is clearly pulling tone from Sergio Leone Westerns, the Mad Max movies (mostly the early ones), and distressingly, even a bit of Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. I’m not entirely certain that the filmmaker wants us to have an enjoyable time watching her film, and that’s certainly her call. As disturbing as the movie is at times, it never ceases to be a fascinating journey into darkness, punctuated by moments of almost comic absurdity, particularly with regards to Reeves’ character, who is clearly less strong leader and most cult figurehead.
The ultimate goal of Amirpour might be to simply find a home for Arden, as well as a new family unit for her to be a part of and exist in relative safety. That’s a tall order for a person living in this place, but Waterhouse’s two-limbed heroine ended up growing on me and finding unusual ways to be charming enough that I started to root for her success. The Bad Batch will not sit well with everyone, and it’s not designed to. But it’s refreshing in a summer movie season that seems agonizingly designed to please everyone all the time to watch a film that simply doesn’t give a fuck, coupled with an open-throated dare to spend any amount of time with the people in this story. Good luck. And if you make it until the end, I think you’ll be pleased with where you end up.
The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre. Amirpour’s 2009 short film, Six and a Half, will screen at the beginning of each showtime. The film can also be found on Amazon and other major streaming platforms.