Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Stars: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves
A recurring criticism of Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night – and one that sticks – is its tendency for style over substance. That film, a black and white vampire tale, brought attention for how Amirpour used her camera to create ultra-stylised imagery; aesthetically pleasing compositions, the iconic look of her titular character. It marked her out as a director of great promise, so long as she could find something to say. The Bad Batch, her follow-up, suggests we may have been fools for thinking that she didn’t in the first place, it’s just that what’s being said isn’t what we had expected.
Now working in full colour and in the English language (mostly), Amirpour presents us a tale of outcasts in a vaguely defined future or alternate now. Set in the wastes of the Texas / Mexico border, it catalogues the misfortunes of a number of citizens deported to this no man’s land. They are referred to as ‘the bad batch’ and are left to eke out an existence on their own. Naturally this has led to poverty, cruelty and exploitation.
Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is new to the zone and has a tough first day. Chased down and captured, she had her right arm and leg amputated so they can be barbecued up for Jason Momoa’s Miami Man. Having managed to escape an all-consuming fate, we cut to five months later. Arlen has managed to secure herself an artificial leg and is on the trail of vengeance. This means hanging around a shanty town ironically named Comfort while she waits for the means and opportunity to carry out her plans. Confronting the woman who severed her limbs, she discovers that Miami Man has a young daughter, Honey (Jayda Fink). This changes the game and, when Honey goes missing, Arlen finds herself duty-bound to get her back.
The Bad Batch spreads out over two exceedingly leisurely hours, contains little in the way of dialogue and presents a punk attitude to its audience. Don’t like it? Fuck you. It’s something approaching the nonchalance presented by Harmony Korine with Spring Breakers or Nicolas Winding Refn with The Neon Demon. This is Amirpour’s shit; you either get with it or you don’t. Trouble is, we’re not given a whole lot of reasons to get with it. Her coolness has been certified through her previously established ability to combine sound and image with flare, so the stunt casting of Jim Carrey and Keanu Reeves in minor roles lend The Bad Batch a line of legitimacy it might not otherwise have mustered. If anything the film feels more like a debut than a consolidation. It’s even flimsier than A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It doesn’t justify it’s running time, nor does it particularly care to.
If I were intent on being mean I might even go as far as to suggest Amirpour is better at compiling soundtracks than she is making films, but I don’t believe that to be the case. I suspect there’s more at work here. Once again her selections sync up with the images in a way that is all about style. She’d make an ace music video director. The choices here embrace kitsch with the likes of Ace Of Base, for example, while her affection for the indie-pop of White Lies shows that loyalty rewards itself. The surface vacancy of The Bad Batch is disappointing for those seeking loftier aspirations in her work, but this may be missing the point entirely.
The story of The Bad Batch seems to reject aspects of good vs evil storytelling that we tend to expect or take for granted. Arlen tells Miami Man that she hates him, yet she goes to great lengths to find Honey and reunite the girl with her cannibal father. Arlen has every right to hate Miami Man, but her actions contradict her claim. Her actions aren’t an angelic gesture of forgiveness either; she hasn’t forgiven him. So what motivates her? A similar question presents itself when we look at Honey herself, who has been captured by Keanu Reeves’ The Dream; a local drug kingpin with a harem of pregnant beauties (like a proto-Immortan Joe, but one ready to disco). Honey’s circumstances have drastically improved. She has spaghetti to eat rather than tenderised human flesh. But these creature comforts should be immaterial when compared to the love of her father, right? Right…? Amirpour’s film takes pleasure in defying our assumptions of what should or shouldn’t be.
Putting these two films of her side by side and there’s a growing philosophy at work that gratifies itself by removing the support beams from conventional storytelling. All of the characters in The Bad Batch are rejects from conventional society; they have all been told that they have no worth. When you create a society wholly from zeroes what expectations should there reasonably be? The slate has effectively been wiped clean. Existence happens for its own sake and the rules of morality and ethics are newborn. The Bad Batch feels nihilistic, because it takes place in a vacuum of right and wrong. The two concepts are meaningless here or ready to be redrawn. Why shouldn’t abuser and victim help one another?
Amirpour’s challenge to conventional values is interesting, yet her methods are not. The Bad Batch feels long after an hour, and while the absence of meaning may very well be the point, it doesn’t create conventionally immersive cinema. Emptiness feels, well, empty. And if my fumbling interpretation of the motives behind this picture are wrong, well, I don’t quite know what the point of this film is. It sounds cool. It seems self-aware, but does this self-awareness extend to how tedious it is?