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Is Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch worth a Rebirth?

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Rhoyce Nova dismembers Amirpour's cannibalistic creation as part of her series on female film directors.

If a film is like a baby, then viewing Ana Lily Amirpour’s, The Bad Batch, is like watching George Miller’s, Mad Max Fury Road, and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s, El Topo, giving birth to a bastard love child. Equal parts hillbilly horror and dystopian, freak-show sci-fi, The Bad Batch’s opening sequence holds ample pregnant promise of an acid-washed, genre-bending trip to come. The question is, is the embryonic portent of the opening scenes delivered, or, in the end, is The Bad Batch more a of still birth than a joyous occasion?

Despite the director being nominated for a Golden Lion and winning the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival, The Bad Batch’s box office sits dead in the water. Amirpour’s 2016 progeny has recouped less than US$300,000 of its six-million-dollar price tag, against her 2014 first-born, A Woman Walks Home Alone at Night, which raked in US$628,000 from its minuscule US$56,000 spend. As it airs on Netflix, Amirpour’s baby is on life-support. Should her cinematic second child be resuscitated?

The Bad Batch is a tale, for want of a better word, of a young woman named Arlen, played by Suki Waterhouse, who is deemed to be one of “the bad batch”. Outcast from society, she is relegated to a fenced-off desert colony of rejects who cannibalise to survive. There, you are either predator or prey, or rather, the devourer or the devoured. Arlen soon knows which side she sits when she loses an arm and a leg, literally, at the hands of a formidable female flesh-eater. Escaping, Arlen runs into Miami Man, the bodacious beefcake, Jason Momoa, who blames her for the disappearance of his ersatz daughter, Honey, a young Jayda Fink. Miami Man discovers that an off-her-face Arlen has abandoned Honey in a town called “Comfort”, an ecstasy-soaked, Burning-Man-esque oasis run by Keanu Reeves, who channels the mass-murdering sect leader, Jim Jones, in his character, The Dream. In Comfort, Reeves reigns over a retinue of pregnant, pot-harvesting and pill-prepping concubines in a baby-making factory where the price women pay for protection and a full belly is, literally, a belly full of baby. As recompense, Miami Man tasks Arlen with infiltrating Comfort and returning Honey to him. Along the way our hapless heroine runs into a phalanx of ragtag untouchables in the forlorn form of Giovanni Ribisi’s The Screamer and The Hermit, played by an utterly unrecognisable Jim Carrey.

On the surface, The Bad Batch has all the makings of a Kill Bill style, Tarantinesque cult classic, with fading favourites, in the form of Reeves, headlining, and notable names, like Ribisi and Carrey, in sneaky tiny cameos. Where it collapses is the two leads, Waterhouse and Momoa. Rarely cast for his acting chops, Momoa, as Miami Man, is more monosyllabic than usual, making the choice of his female lead even more crucial. Waterhouse, however, is singularly limp-wristed and ineffectual in her role, which is itself, sketchily drawn. Should the character of Arlen be rescued or revered, specifically, is she a damsel in distress, or a badass bitch? If the former, she is not guilelessly good enough, if the latter, not formidably fierce enough. Charlize Theron’s unapologetic amputee, Imperata Furiosa, she is not. Amirpour, in her attempt to draft a complexly conflicted heroine, has succeeded only in rendering one who floats from one misfortune to the next, adrift as the desert dregs of her new wasteland home.

Mercifully, Amirpour’s distinctly provocative vision, alone, is enough to set her apart from the pack, making The Bad Batch worthy of a watch. Though incontestably indebted to Kennedy-Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road, Amirpour’s audacious optics forge a visual lexicon of their own. The opening frames where a freshly amputated Arlen makes her escape by pushing herself away, prone on a skateboard, like some desperate, dying praying mantis that a cruel schoolboy has pulled the limbs off, sear into the viewers’ mind. It’s the kind of simple, yet nakedly grotesque, visage that is so unforgettable it makes every wouldbe filmmaker wince and say, “Why didn’t I think of that?”.

In the same vein, the scenes chock full of hulking beefcakes pumping iron in their budgie-smugglers - which only serve to accentuate their steroid- affected shortcomings - are enough to make the most lauded of music video directors eat their hearts out. This rears the crucial quandary of The Bad Batch. The viewer constantly finds themselves asking, “Am I watching a movie, or just an excruciatingly long music video?”.

As a director, Amirpour has clearly embraced the film school adage of “show don’t tell”, to the point where she tells us nothing. In its entirety, The Bad Batch can’t have more than a couple of dozen snatches of dialogue. The characters have nothing to say, instead, they simply stare at each other. No interaction means no relationships, and the viewer constantly finds themselves asking, “Who are these people to each other?” Rather than engendering a profound intensity, this elicits a sense of vacuousness as vast as the dystopian horror’s desert setting. The unrelenting focus Amirpour places on arresting optics throughout the film only serves to highlight its lack of narrative. Not every film needs one, but no narrative means no character development. The director’s scant attention to the tenets of storytelling means that The Bad Batch lacks tension and buildup. Rather, the film reads like a succession of music videos which prevent the viewer from sinking their teeth into the storyline.

The film is more triumphant, however, when read as an allegory. The Bad Batch is undeniably envisioned as a critique of “The American Dream”, and the price people pay for not playing by the rules of the game. The untouchables of the “bad batch” are literally cannibalised for choosing counter-culture over corporate-culture, freedom over a safe and comfortable, yet restrictive, existence. The terms of the trade-off are made clear when Arlen returns Honey to the loving arms of Miami Man, but all the girl wants is to return to The Dream and the full belly of spaghetti he offers. When Miami Man tries to shoo Arlen back to Comfort, she chooses freedom, and him. Instead of spaghetti, their bellies are filled full of Honey’s pet rabbit, roasted over an open fire, and the trio form a new, wild and free, pseudo-family.

The blasé onlooker could be forgiven for thinking that Amirpour’s desert dystopia is set in some distant apocalyptic future, yet the truth she is poking the stick at is far more disturbing. The wastelands she depicts exist right here today, and not just in so-called third-world countries. Inner-city slums in Portland and Chicago and San Francisco and downtown LA are growing at cancerous rates. Skid-row life in these parts is rife with all the piss and poverty and faeces and fear concocted so excruciatingly in Amirpour’s viewfinder.

Whatever the message, today it seems a filmmaker can only critique contemporary western society if they set it in some faraway reality “out there”, and veil it in a cloak of fantasy and illusion, lest it all become, “too real”, too “close to home”. If the viewer were to look at Amirpour’s grittily grim renderings more as mirror to our current condition, rather than two hours of entertainment porn, then perhaps they’ll see more than they bargained for. The verdict? Ana Lily Amirpour’s black sheep baby, The Bad Batch, is incontrovertibly worth resuscitating and could yet become a future cult classic. If Tarantino had stamped his name on it, it undoubtedly would.

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