By Mitch Anderson
Terms like “visionary” and “the next big thing” are thrown around entirely too often in the world of independent and low-budget cinema, to the point that it can almost feel dull when a new filmmaking talent is widely described as such. These labels are particularly numbing in the modern film climate, where a striking low-budget debut usually means an immediate vault into blockbuster fare huge in scope but whimpering in creativity, as one promising young filmmaker after another becomes a studio cog whose decisions are entirely at the whims of faceless executives and shareholders more concerned about brand management than quality product. Fortunately, in only two films, writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour has not only dodged this mechanistic fate, but has proven herself worthy of independent filmmaking’s loftiest terms. That’s not to say that Amirpour, after turning heads with her 2014 debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, hasn’t massively expanded her scope and ambition for her sophomore feature The Bad Batch. In fact, the film is that too-rare beast; a burst of pure imagination and originality that still functions as proof that its writer/director is more than ready to play in a bigger sandbox.
The film stars Suki Waterhouse as Arlen, a young woman who, in the first shots of the film, is dumped and abandoned in fenced-off Texas desert territory, marked by a sign reading that the land beyond it is no longer considered property of the United States. Venturing forth on her own, it isn’t long before Arlen is chased down by golf-cart-riding cannibals, captured, and separated from an arm and a leg. After devising a… resourceful escape plan, Arlen makes her way to Comfort, a settlement in the desert whose titular promise seems contradicted by the despondent and insane who line its streets. Still, at least the cannibals are kept out. Several months later, having fashioned a makeshift leg and adapted to life with one arm, Arlen sets out on a mission of revenge, resulting in an odyssey which includes raves, adopted pet rabbits, portraiture, hallucinogens, and the warring attentions of two men known as Miami Man (Jason Moama), the leader of the cannibals, and The Dream (Keanu Reeves), the enigmatic leader of Comfort whose plans may be more nefarious than he lets on.
If this all sounds like a recipe for an ambitious but overstuffed misfire, it’s because the film could so easily become one. But Amirpour announces her confident style early and never abandons it over the film’s sprawling-yet-thrilling 115 minutes. The first act of the film, depicting Suki’s abandonment, capture, and escape, is almost entirely dialogue-free, Amirpour instead packing her striking widescreen frames with detail and visual information. Though the film’s dialogue gets the job done (Reeves in particular delivers every line in a gleefully dry Jim-Jones-esque stupor), it’s in the visuals that the true story of the film plays out, from Miami Man’s always-visible eponymous chest tattoo to a character known only as The Hermit, a silent wanderer of the desert whose alliances shift in seemingly every scene (played by Jim Carrey in top-form vaudeville pantomime). After her debut’s black-and-white cinematography, it’s easy to see Amirpour savoring the chance to use color, filling her desert vistas with dusty neon and day-glo; Sergio Leone by way of Harmony Korine. Additionally, the film is driven beginning-to-end by a killer soundtrack, spanning the electropop spectrum from Die Antwoord to Culture Club, and bracing sound design; Amirpour’s real-life partial deafness drives her soundscapes just as Nicolas Winding Refn’s colorblindness drives his visuals. This is a film to watch loud.
All of this is engaging and entertaining on a surface level, but it wouldn’t add up to much without Amirpour’s command of tone and the clear abundance of ideas at play here. The social implications of a group of people cruelly cast out of society are more than potent, particularly in the current political climate, and while Amirpour doesn’t spell out for us what exactly happened to allow America to reach this sorry state, hints of everything from plain-faced intolerance and bigotry to nuclear fallout are dropped. Coupled with the eventual reveal of The Dream’s true plans for Comfort, the unforced glances at class and race within this society of scavengers (particularly complicated by Amirpour’s point-of-view as an Iranian-American), and the notion of “kill or be killed” morality, The Bad Batch is about the furthest from a “message” movie as you can get. Indeed, the film’s unforgettable final shot would feel like a mean, nihilistic joke, were it not for the clear feeling and passion in everything that precedes it.
The Bad Batch is a gonzo low-budget blockbuster, a dispatch from an alternate world where ambitious, large-scale films for the adult crowd are plentiful and allowed to co-exist with popcorn fare, and its mixed reception here only seems to prove how unprepared our current environment is for such bursts of pure, unrestrained creativity. The film moves with the confident abandon of a proven veteran, making its status as only its writer/director’s second feature even more remarkable. In this just world, Ana Lily Amirpour’s name would be at the top of every studio’s consideration list for the next entry in their major franchise. However, in a truly just world, she would be allowed to continue to make films as bizarre, striking, and downright entertaining as this.
The Bad Batch is screening at the UICA Movie Theater August 18th – 30th.