by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Bad Batch
dir. Ana Lily Amirpour
The Bad Batch, the dynamite second feature of Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour, begins when Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is dumped into a cannibal desert wasteland. Everything is going against the film at that point: an overly glamorous model lead, music from Die Antwoord that impinges on every aspect of our senses, the constantly reused desert setting selected for its lack of cost to the production. Ten minutes later, Waterhouse is missing her right arm and her right leg, and Amirpour has written over every cliché you thought she was settling into so obscenely.
We first meet Miami Man (the consistently excellent Jason Momoa) in his trailer, where he is painting a portrait of his daughter. It is an eye-raising way to discover a character, especially a cannibal. A few minutes later, Momoa is snapping the neck of a captured woman begging for her life. Amirpour offers these moments in a meaningful way; she chooses neither to overlay them with music or glorify the violence. She is fully in control at all times, and by the end of The Bad Batch, you realize what a miracle it must have been to shoot this on a budget of only $6 million.
Instead of sweeping, dull shoots of this wasteland environment, Amirpour has a deft eye for people — how they speak and relate to each other in ways that are unmistakably human. Scenes with Jim Carrey, Keanu Reeves and Giovanni Ribisi might have come across as stunt casting in another context. Each performer takes these smaller roles with a diverting seriousness that never takes away from the affecting moments of The Bad Batch. Even the tiniest scene, like a drifter asking Miami Man to sketch his portrait, is full of life.
After her violent amputation, Arlen escapes her confinement by smearing her body with feces and escaping when her captors try to clean her. She pushes her way across the landscape on skateboard, presumably unable to find a stick of any kind. Amirpour makes a point of not keeping Arlen in anguish or pain throughout. We might have emphasized more with the character if we were filled in on her struggles, but there is a deliberate effort here not to focus on a theme of suffering. This is just the way the world is, and Arlen knows it.
Waterhouse herself has some struggles. She is still growing as a performer, and her dark eyebrows barely move throughout The Bad Batch: she seems incapable of emitting measured, smaller responses to events. Her face remains vaguely placid no matter the situation, and her body does not really shake or move either. Sexuality is the last meaningful thing in her life. The first images we see of her smooth legs parody a cinema of exploitation until one of those limbs is quickly shorn off. In various ways Waterhouse would resemble an anime heroine if Amirpour had not put in evidence enough remarkable moments to make her real.
Because she is hateful of cannibals, when Arlen finds a Miami Man’s wife and daughter in a local dump, she shoots and kills the mother to save the girl from a fate of eating human flesh. Instead of explaining the motivation of every act in The Bad Batch, Amirpour’s script is delightfully minimal, allowing us to puzzle out the various moralities and motivations ourselves. In this way, the metropolis of Comfort seems most like a living, breathing whorl. When Arlen finally meets Miami Man as he searches for his daughter, the coming together of these two disturbing figures is more than the sum of their parts.
Music by Jordan Lieb under the name Black Light Smoke preserves the dystopia in its latter stages. Arlen finds the young girl in custody of the Dream (Keanu Reeves), who lords over Comfort with a harem, in the film’s least original aspect. Reeves’ dialogue is so perfect it doesn’t matter how many times we recollect such a figure. The Bad Batch enters us into its hypnotic fugue, its rapid day and night cycles establishing a continuity independent of our own time. This exciting sophomore effort — from such an assured voice — heralds the coming of a new master.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.