Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut as a feature director came in the form of the genre-bending vampire romance film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The film, shot in supple black and white over a soundtrack of trance-inducing electronica and angsty punk, was a beautiful piece about maintaining relationships in an environment rife with isolation.
On paper, Amirpour’s second film The Bad Batch exists in a similar world. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is released from “Bad Batch” prison into the desert wilderness of the Texas-Mexico border.
A dystopian world in which cannibalism is a viable form of survivable (viable to the point of being morally questionable as opposed to morally intolerable), isolation is all Arlen has. Especially after she is captured by a family of cannibals and stripped of two of her limbs.
It is evident within the first half hour of The Bad Batch that there is a lot of the same visual beauty here that is also found in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The desert landscape and tonally anachronistic pop-electric soundtrack create an ambiance that is lavish in spite of its barrenness.
But these audio-visual beauties are only a hungry formalist’s stomping ground when the film prohibits dialogue. It is almost jarring when the film chooses to adhere to a script, and these moments lessen the film.
Amirpour composes dialogue-free sequences masterfully, both here and in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Even a shot as gratuitous as two dogs humping while Giovanni Ribisi’s “The Screamer” looks in and imitates the motions convinces us that there is something majestic to be gleaned from it.
But Ribisi’s rambling introduction, Waterhouse’s first major act of vengeance against those that have wronged her: these are scenes rendered dramatically inert by poor dialogue and delivery.
The film could, and should, have been silent. The performances certainly would hold up better. The mute Jim Carrey gives arguably the best performance in the film.
Sonically, the film is gorgeous and lush. Every song choice—save for perhaps “Karma Chameleon”—is additive on a psychotropic level. The blending of music and other sound design elements is intricately balanced to create a wonderful and adequately ominous mood.
This soundscape is set on the backdrop of a Mad Max-inspired world of savagery. It is a Western grindhouse environment that opens the door for both Western and exploitation tropes. However, neither are truly at play in the larger stakes of the narrative.
The narrative, instead of digging its heels into these well-trod tracks of the genre predecessors that it takes influence from, meanders. At times, stagnates. The length doesn’t do this pace any favors, either. Following the film’s visceral first act, which promises a narrative of dire consequences and huge threats, the film lapses into a wandering travel narrative of savage romance.
While this reluctant romance too has its moments, there is little in the characters or their conversations that make this change of pace inviting. Again, this could have been a silent film.
Thematically, the film doesn’t seem to know where it is going. Much like the characters get stranded in the desert various times during the film, the themes seem to trudge around certain big ideas like compassion in the face of damnation and the moral ambiguity of fighting for one’s own survival.
Also like the characters in the film, these themes tend to settle in one central location: “The Comfort,” a place led by the dubious “The Dream” (Keanu Reeves). Is any of this real? We are lost and will seemingly never be found. These are ideas that circulate through the makeshift society of The Bad Batch. But to what end?
That is the real question. If the film is about failing to understand the reality of an environment so devastating that it comes off surreal, then why does it center on a love story and a travel narrative about finding a lost child? If the film is about the aforementioned struggle to find reason in the lack of certainty that is self-preservation, then why meditate so arduously on the concept of “The Dream,” the drug-addled oasis that is more of a mirage than anything else.
In the end, this messy conglomeration of thematic wanderers in the wasteland of The Bad Batch succeed only in adding superficial layers to a world that needs more foundation on the ground level. Lofty as the themes want to be, the film doesn’t earn them when the world-building doesn’t take into account character depth or a narrative with larger implications on the world as a whole.
The Bad Batch is a strong example of the “sophomore slump,” a film still indicative of Amirpour’s keen eye and unique form of genre hybridity but lacking the focus and power of her first work. While inevitably hard to surpass A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night in terms of style and narrative restraint, The Bad Batch comes off far too mangy and untamed, even when viewed in isolation.
The Bad Batch: C+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)