The Bad Batch (2017) by Ana Lily Amirpour
Review by Jessica Carr
Everyone has that filmmaker they feel an inexplicable connection with. When you watch their films on screen it’s like they made it just for you. For me, that filmmaker is Ana Lily Amirpour. I felt the deepest connection with her debut film Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (read my review here). It spoke to me in ways I didn’t know a vampire western could. Although I wasn’t as in love with The Bad Batch as her first film, I was still impressed with the emotions she made me feel from a film about a cannibal falling in love with his food in a desert wasteland.
Ana Lily enjoys creating atmospheric films. She builds an atmosphere that feels like it takes place in an alternate universe. She uses the same technique in The Bad Batch. The audience is thrown into an apocalyptic world where outcast members of society are considered “bad batch.” They are tagged with tattoos giving them an identification number. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is sent past the border outside of Texas. Later, she is attacked by two women. She awakens chained up as a woman saws off her arm and leg (“All That She Wants” by Ace of Base plays and oddly works really well in this scene). Arlen escapes from the cannibals with one arm and one leg. She rolls on a skateboard across the desert and is rescued by a hermit (Jim Carrey) who takes her to a makeshift town called Comfort. Sometime later, Arlen stumbles upon a mother and daughter scavenging through garbage. She realizes they are cannibals and decides to take revenge by shooting the mother. She takes the child with her to Comfort without realizing the girl’s father Miami Man (Jason Momoa) would come after his daughter.
I think this film is like a lovechild between Mad Max and Texas Chain Saw Massacre with special touches of surrealism and humor. Tonally, it is all over the place like a romance, horror and comedy all rolled into one. Ana Lily is usually open about her film influences. David Lynch is one of her favorite filmmakers, and she uses some of his common practices here with off-the-wall characters like The Hermit and The Dream (Keanu Reeves). She also has characters say stilted awkward lines of dialogue that don’t necessarily go with the scene or the setting. At the end of The Bad Batch, Arlen casually asks Miami Man what he’s doing and if he wants to hang out later which seems super weird considering she just rescued his daughter from a cult in the desert. I think the out-of-place lines of dialogue can take some viewers out of the movie which is what happened for me. It was at these moments I realized I was sitting in a theater and I wasn’t actually in the cinematic world after all.
Ana Lily also has a habit of writing characters that are neither inherently bad nor inherently good. You have characters that are forced into cannibalism because they are trying to survive in the desert and you sort of empathize with them, but not completely (cut to scene of Miami Man snapping a lady’s neck while listening to “Karma Chameleon”). It’s hard to understand what really motivates Miami Man besides his daughter. He tells Arlen at one point that she is all he cares about. That’s why it’s interesting when he seems to start having feelings for Arlen although he doesn’t make it very clear. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Miami Man protects Arlen with a sheet during a sand storm. The camera follows them underneath the sheet while they take turns gazing at each other. I really love the way Ana Lily builds sexual tension in her films. She creates a romance that doesn’t need physical touch. In fact, in both her films neither couples engage in a kiss even though I would classify both films as romantic. I like to interpret the ending of The Bad Batch with Arlen, Miami Man and his daughter sitting by the fire eating rabbit as a confirmation that Miami Man won’t eat people anymore. Arlen and Miami Man make sex eyes at each other during that whole scene, and also like Lynch films it was a surprisingly funny scene to me (mostly because of how inappropriate it is).
In terms of music, Ana Lily’s former career as a professional DJ is always apparent in her films. The Bad Batch soundtrack is an eclectic mix of electronic music, 80’s hits and alternative rock. The music cues were an integral part of the film. Especially the montage of the beefiest men including Miami Man lifting weights and working out as “Fish Paste” by Die Antwoord plays. It was one of the many parts of the film that if it worked for you was great, but if not it probably just seemed kind of bizarre. There’s also a cameo by Diego Luna as a DJ in Comfort. He plays electronic music from a bus in the center of Comfort after The Dream gives a big speech about how they are outcasts, but he’s created Comfort for them even though they are “bad batch.” The citizens of Comfort are also encouraged to take a drug (probably LSD) so The Dream can be inside of them. This sparks a series of psychedelic scenes after Arlen takes the drug. She goes to the desert and stares at the sky as it changes colors showing the amazing cinematography work done by Lyle Vincent.
Whether The Bad Batch is communicating a political statement about immigration is debatable. I think Ana Lily does write her scripts with particular themes in mind, but she doesn’t try to force those ideas on her audience. There isn’t much dialogue, only images which leaves it up to the audience to interpret. But it doesn’t take an expert film critic to see that the cast of characters are mostly made of minorities. Miami Man is from Cuba and was declared “bad batch” because he didn’t have the right paperwork. Some of the outcasts turn to cannibalism to survive which can represent how there is a hierarchy even among social justice issues. Everyone is fighting for their cause despite the fact that it would be more helpful if we all tried to fight together.
So whether you are a huge fan of Ana Lily’s work or not, it’s hard to describe The Bad Batch as an ordinary movie experience. It didn’t have quite the same emotional depth for me as Girl Walks Home Alone at Night did, but I definitely felt some feelings. I’m okay with declaring my love for a somewhat controversial filmmaker especially when she gives me images, characters and a cinematic experience I couldn’t possibly forget. More importantly, she helped us all realize that Jason Momoa is both the scariest and sexiest man you could encounter in the wasteland.
P.S. If you noticed Ana Lily dressed as the skeleton girl in Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, she reprises that character and makes a cameo appearance in this film as well.