- Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Director Ana Lily Amirpour’s feature “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” was one 2014’s most startling films, an Iranian vampire Western (no, really) that was equal parts indie horror weirdness and Sergio Leone moodiness. The perfect “here is a director to watch” type of film, it was cool, assured and powerful.
“The Bad Batch,” which Amirpour wrote and directed, is a different animal. Stylish without being slick, somehow canny and misguided at once and cursed with the single worst Texas accent you are likely to hear on film the year, “The Bad Batch” intermittently thrills with powerful, bat-poop-crazy images in the service of pulpy, post-apocalyptic lunacy and absolutely nothing else.
To Amirpour’s not-insignificant credit, in an era of semi-improvised/yackfest comedies and overscored, CGI blockbusters, “The Bad Batch” is a potent reminder that film is most powerful when the director remembers that it’s a visual medium first — there a long stretches in “Bad Batch” with no dialogue whatsoever.
It takes a good 20 minutes for anyone to say anything of significance. Which is ten minutes longer than it takes for the lead character to lose two limbs to cannibals.
Oh, yes. Good ol’ Texas cannibals. (Sadly, Texas is played in this film by California.)
It is an unspecified future time, though it could be tomorrow or yesterday. We seen Arlen (Suki Waterhouse, sporting the abovementioned godawful accent) released from prison into the empty desert, complete with a number tattoo that identifies her as “Bad Batch,” which seems to mean all manner of outsiders.
In a manner known to fans of post-apocalyptic fiction the world over, the ragged citizens of this wasteland have formed up into tribes that are weird and savage and hedonistic in different ways. Within minutes of the audience meeting her, Arlen is run down and captured by members of the Bridge, who look like Venice Beach muscle rats and survive on human flesh. Arlen’s leg and arm are promptly removed for food purposes, the wounds cauterized. Through canny use of a piece of rebar, Arlen escapes on a skateboard.
Jumping ahead five months later, Arlen has fallen in with a community called Comfort, a ravelicious bunch who thrive on drugs and devotion to their cultish leader known as the Dream (Keanu Reeves and his moustache).
Arlen doesn’t seem all that happy in Comfort, though, and, on one of her sojourns outside its walls, ends up killing a woman scavenging for food, resulting in the woman’s daughter Miel (Jayda Fink) following Arlen home. (People of color fare oddly badly in this thing — not so much that one suspects sinister motives, but the optics are kind of terrible.)
Unfortunately, Miel is also the daughter of Miami Man (Jason Momoa, also struggling with his accent, which is supposed to be Cuban), who begins looking for her.
Some things work incredibly well. Brooklyn electronic duo Darkside provide a skittering, bassy soundtrack. A virtually unrecognizable, no-kidding-understated Jim Carrey shows up. And cinematographer Lyle Vincent does a tremendous job with color and flash and detail, evoking desert-punk classics such as “The Road Warrior” while updating them for the EDM era. (No wonder Vice Media is a producer on this thing — this movie could look and feel no more Vice.)
The more the plot unfolds, the less interesting it gets — of course we will see the human side of the cannibals, foreshadowed by Miami Man’s devotion to Miel. Of course we will see the sinister side of Comfort — nothing say “this dude is up to absolutely no good” like the dead caterpillar on Keanu’s upper lip.
It’s the grimy style that stays with you. “The Bad Batch” is exactly the sort of striking picture that makes one want to see Amirpour get a crack at a mainstream franchise, a la Rian Johnson helming a Star Wars picture. “The Bad Batch” is awfully mixed, enjoyably grindhouse-gaga one minute and ham-fisted and meandering the next, but one remains interested in where Amirpour’s muse takes her.