You take care of a garden, it takes care back. You feed it; it feeds you. Few things in this world operate like that. Fair and square.
The Bad Batch is the second feature from writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour who absolutely exploded onto the scene with one of the most arresting, strange and hypnotic debut films of all time, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. On the surface these first two films couldn’t be more different. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was quiet; A Bad Batch blares with noise and music. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was in black & white; The Bad Batch is a vibrant explosion of color. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was somber and tragic; The Bad Batch is over-the-top and bombastic. But at the heart, they’re very much of a piece. They’re both about a damaged woman striving to make a life for herself in an even more damaged world. In The Bad Batch, that woman is Arlen, a convict turned loose into a barren desert wasteland where dangerous convicts of certain kinds are simply freed to survive or kill or die. She walks in on her own two feet, but this is a new world she’s in and we’re not even thirty minutes into the movie before she’s lost both an arm & a leg (I’m sure there’s no symbolism there).
The film is incredibly strange and very taken with the idea of iconography and coolness. A lot of people, who probably didn’t see A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, accused The Bad Batch of trying too hard to be cool; the point, though, is a dissection of cool. In A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, there’s one character, Arash, who is taken with this iconography and cool; one could ding him for trying too hard to be a James Dean character, but then the movie reveals that it’s actually the character who wants to achieve this level of cool. In The Bad Batch, every character wants to be James Dean. Not literally, but they all want to achieve their own unironic iconography whether we’re talking about Momoa and his massive tattoos and more massive muscles, Keanu Reeves with his sleazy mustache and tacky lighting, a nearly unrecognizable Diego Luna spinning his DJ music in underwear and a cowboy hat or even Jim Carrey’s bedraggled beggar who doesn’t speak, but finds a way to ask for only one thing in the movie: a drawing of himself. The only character who isn’t invested in this self-aware striving is Arlen herself and she’s marked by being the only character to bounce between communities in all the ways the others can’t.
The performances are pretty great. Jim Carrey and Giovanni Ribisi both give their best performances in years. Ribisi is only in the film for about five minutes, but he’s wonderful and he gave me both my biggest laugh in the movie and also one of the most haunting visuals of the entire film. Reeves is great in his supporting role; his character has to walk a fine line, not between good & evil, but between sense & nonsense; at any given moment, the movie may be asking him to say something genuinely profound or else ridiculing him for his mock profundity and Reeves is the perfect casting for this. Momoa is wonderful in both bad and good ways. He’s muscle-bound and terrifying at times; his absurd accent is supposed to be Cuban, but until it was revealed I had pretty well settled on Jamaican as my best guess – it’s one of the most insane and awful accents in recent history, but somehow it just adds to the bizarre, messy atmosphere of this film. Waterhouse is a somewhat troubling performer. I was torn while watching the movie as to her performance. On the one hand, I wondered what the movie would have been like with a more emotive actress in the role. On the other hand, and I think this is where I come down, her affectless performance is kind of exactly what the movie needs. Maybe all of Arlen’s sufferings become less interesting if we see Arlen being destroyed by them; maybe the way she meets all of her ups and downs with the flat disinterest of a person who’s already seen it all is key to the character.
The Bad Batch isn’t what one could call a meticulous movie or a near-perfect one, whatever those things even mean, though I would have said both of those things about Amirpour’s debut. This movie is often messy in terms of the different tones & genres it’s trying to slam together. There are oddities that leap out as jarring at times, like Momoa’s accent. And the story is simple; a lot of critics and audience members alike have bashed the movie for not having “enough” story or being draggy, but I think they miss the point: Amirpour’s movies aren’t particularly plot heavy; they’re more about world-building and experience and atmosphere. But the movie, by virtue of being pretty distant in terms of not leading you from plot point to plot point, does seem long. But these are tiny flaws in the long term. This is absolutely a movie that surprised me consistently. As long as it is, you’re never more than five minutes away from seeing a surprising image or having the plot go in a surprising direction. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but it makes of all those disparate influences something really striking and marvelous. You could call The Bad Batch a mess and not exactly be wrong, but it’s a transfixing, compelling and beautiful movie for all that. It has a hell of splashy surface and surprisingly murky waters beneath. I know this one’s getting a pretty negative response, but I’m going to break ranks on this one. Basically everyone was on the same page with A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, but this one’s getting a pretty negative response. Well, I have to break ranks. Something about Amirpour just works for me I guess. I walked out knowing it was a great film; it’s only grown in my estimation as the weeks have gone by since I saw it. Great art that is also subtle and restrained is probably harder to make than art that’s bombastic and visceral, so maybe that elevates A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night above The Bad Batch, but there’s no reasons to make these comparisons. Amirpour’s created another genuine masterpiece. She’s a singular talent. Get in on the ground floor with this one. 4 stars.
tl;dr – bizarre, twisted, messy film is brilliant and consistently surprising; a flawed masterpiece that continues to establish writer-director Amirpour as a genius on the rise. 4 stars.