Revisiting Ana Lily Amirpour’s visionary and allegorical horror western
Sophisticated director Ana Lily Amirpour‘s sophomore genre-bender (following the stark, monochrome A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) The Bad Batch screamed into festivals chased by critical acclaim, received a limited theatrical run, didn’t really find its audience and then was seemingly cast into the literal and figurative contemporary cinematic dump bin. That’s not really a surprise. Pictures like The Bad Batch are so singular in their vision, so pulsing with energy, art and ideas that they generally need a wide berth of time to be re-discovered, discussed, debated and appreciated. And I’m convinced that history will remember The Bad Batch as a major work of pop-cult art and I say this fully admitting that, after a blistering first half, by contrast, the rest of the film is a bit of a shrug, bleeding out into a wave of exposition and hastily resolved narrative and character arcs.
But man, oh man… those first 45 minutes! So deliriously brilliant is the set-up for this future-shocker that you can – and should – forgive the work its flaws. In fact, after multiple viewings – which The Bad Batch surely needs – those flaws become acceptable deviations. They become part of the fabric of the total vision, for better or worse.
The Bad Batch literally hits the ground running, with Suki Waterhouse‘s lithe Arlen fleeing a future-Texas desert Hell from motorcycle-riding assailants who takes her back to their camp, restrain her and inject her with some sort of fluid before hacking off her arm and leg and eating them! It’s a bold passage of violence and odd poetry propelled by an equally-odd soundtrack and, despite the graphic nature of the sequence, it’s shot with, er, taste. Suddenly Amirpour trots out a rogues gallery of miscreants, a cannibal tribe of weight lifters — even the women are ripped — led by the hulking Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones, Justice League, Aquaman) that seem pulled from the films of Alejandro Jodorowsky (with echoes of pictures like The Witch Who Came From the Sea and select works by Kenneth Anger) and yet are still unlike anything else seen on screen. As Arlen drifts in and out of her haze and sees others like her, human livestock, missing limbs and wallowing in misery, the scrappy woman with the too-short jean shorts plots her escape. Said escape involves caking herself in her own excrement and with her one-arm, wielding an iron pipe while wheeling herself away on a skateboard.
That all this mesmerizing madness is related by Amirpour and her cast without a word of discernible dialogue makes it all the more powerful, a battle cry against genre films that pad their running times and murder their own souls with tin-eared verbiage, refusing to trust that their audience is engaged enough and intelligent enough to follow along using universally understood sound and image, body language and movement. But when Arlen weaves her way to the neighboring camp of “Comfort” and “rescues” the daughter of her former cannibal captor, Amirpour either loses her nerve or listened to too many money people who likely suggested that she compromise her vision and clarify her beautiful abstractions.
See, The Bad Batch is very clearly an unsubtle allegory for the New America, specifically honing in on the “have-nots,” those on the fringes who often are forced to create their own sub-societies, governed by their own laws and codes. These are motifs alive in the best Spaghetti Westerns, where Europeans presented a fascinating outsider’s view of the already fantastical cinematic visions of early America and the director herself has cited The Bad Batch as a neo-western of sorts. With our man Trump blathering about walls and blustering through attempts to keep “undesirables” out, The Bad Batch‘s entire Escape From New York-ish set-up speaks of this current regime’s skewed view on “the other” and Amirpour makes the point here that “the other” is really an illusion, and only a matter of perspective. And again, she does this with image and sound, not words. She does it with revolting scenes of human barbecue and instantly-iconic imagery (Waterhouse’s “happy face ass” will likely live on in cinema history forever). Truly, Amirpour is an intelligent, bold filmmaker and it’s beyond exciting to watch her create this world, her world.
But then, as the movie trods on, people start talking — a lot — including Keanu Reeves’ Jim Jones-esque leader, whose hammy oration pushes the movie into camp but also has the unfortunate effect of hammering home explicitly everything Amirpour has taken an effort to allude to in the abstract (Reeves literally says that freedom costs an arm and a leg to our limb-challenged heroine). Suddenly the film is awash in heavy-handedness, from fractured puzzles of the American flag, the slogan-heavy T-shirts key characters wear, to signs, signs, everywhere signs. The movie loses its footing and feels like the intellectual at the party who has one-too-many and just dissolves into a puddle of punchy preaching.
But no matter. There’s more than enough fire and strangeness and near-feral originality to make The Bad Batch a major slab of deranged grandeur and anti-mainstream majesty while cementing its director as one of the most interesting cinematic voices currently alive. There’s no other film like it. And hey, Jim Carrey appears as a mute Gabby Hayes-esque desert rat. Know any other movies that can claim that honor? I thought not…