Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night was a sparse yet stunning debut that overflowed with languid cool. So much of Girl Walks gets by on its moody/artsy posturing, which had shades of Jim Jarmusch’s early work mixed with an arthouse pastiche of German expressionism and spaghetti western tropes. While it rarely said anything overtly, viewers could tease meaning and motive from its characters. Such is the power of a perfect shot. Amirpour picked her long takes and curated her music choices, which made for some simple yet genuinely transcendent moments.
It’s too bad about Amirpour’s new film, The Bad Batch. It does so many of the things that A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night does, but to lesser effect. Rather than Jarmusch and F.W. Murnau, Amirpour takes plenty of cues from the Mad Max series, A Boy and His Dog, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cult classic El Topo. Yet these references feel like indie cred garnish on an empty plate.
Like its protagonist Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), The Bad Batch just sort of hangs out in the desert doing nothing much that matters.
The Bad Batch
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Release Date: June 23, 2017 (limited)
Don’t get me wrong. There are things about The Bad Batch that I love, but they’re undermined by boring self-satisfied self-indulgence. In the film’s post-apocalyptic world, prisoners are released at the Texas border and left to fend for themselves. Arlen starts the movie wandering the wasteland but is soon kidnapped by cannibals. She loses an arm and a leg before she escapes to a makeshift town called Comfort. (On the way she meets a mute and nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey.) Comfort is run by a charismatic cult leader surrounded by an army of bodyguards/brides. He’s played by Keanu Reeves, who seems to be doing his best impression of Edgar Allan Poe doing a bad Keanu Reeves impression. At night, Comfort becomes a small scale post-apocalyptic Burning Man, complete with a DJ bumping tunes in a giant, light-up boombox.
In all that I’ve written, what’s not to love? The answer is Arlen. After about 30 minutes in a two-hour movie, my patience and goodwill dissipated because of her and the film’s unwillingness to do anything interesting with her.
Maybe it’s odd of me to expect character from a moody would-be cult movie, but Arlen’s lack of character causes The Bad Batch to implode around her. She doesn’t want anything, doesn’t need anything, has no sense of motivation or an internal life. She just kind of wanders around. For a movie with such a strange world, it’s too content with being listless. Arlen is a non-character surrounded by more interesting supporting characters. There’s no compelling story to tell in The Bad Batch; it’s just a bunch of sets, locations, a primary cast, and a little stunt casting.
In one of the early moments of The Bad Batch, Arlen meets a scavenger and her daughter. They both come from the cannibal colony that Arlen fled, but she’s never interacted with either of these characters before. She murders the mother in cold blood even as she begs for mercy, but spares the daughter, Miel (Jayda Fink). The little girl mutely follows her mother’s killer. It’s done out of revenge, I get it, and yet Arlen doesn’t seek further revenge on those who actually amputated her limbs. She just hangs out in Comfort and that’s it.
Miel would have made a more interesting main character. Miel’s father, Miami Man, could have carried the film as well. He’s a hulking bodybuilder cannibal played by Jason Momoa doing an impression of a good Keanu Reeves doing a bad Cuban accent. Like really, really bad. Momoa’s at least a driven presence on screen since I knew what he wanted (i.e., to find his daughter… and maybe eat someone).
Arlen and Miami Man meet and strike up a bond that verges on attraction but, like so much else about the movie, goes nowhere. They hide beneath a sheet during a sandstorm, intimately close, Miami Man unaware that his companion is his enemy. In a different film this moment could be filled with a edgy or even erotic charge. In The Bad Batch, it’s just two attractive people under a flapping white sheet.
In my head, I keep thinking of The Bad Batch in terms of El Topo since they’re such opposites. Everything in El Topo feels meaningful because Jodorwosky builds his movie around a character’s spiritual quest and obsessions. All objects are symbols, actions have cosmic consequence, the finale is apotheosis. The Bad Batch reduces its symbols to objects, strips actions of their greater meaning, turns dialogue into babble. A rambling Reeves monologue late in the film is tedious nonsense about seeds and plumbing. Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain summed up the gist in just nine words: “You are excrement. You can change yourself into gold.”
Though beautiful, The Bad Batch is a tautological movie rather than spiritual or philosophical: a meaningless wasteland about a meaningless wasteland. It’s not gold, that’s for sure.