The Bad Batch (2016 TIFF Review)

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<i>The Bad Batch</i> (2016 TIFF Review)

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, suggested a filmmaker with a sure sense of style who wasn’t quite as confident yet as a storyteller. Her follow-up makes that case even stronger, on both sides of the equation. The Bad Batch is a bracing vision of post-apocalyptic America that’s also terribly stilted and sometimes downright silly. Individual moments are arresting, but as a whole the movie strains for its ideas to be as compelling as its visuals.

The movie stars Suki Waterhouse as Arlen, who lives in a desolate, sun-scorched Texas that’s been decimated by some sort of cataclysmic incident. That’s obvious as soon as she’s kidnapped by some gnarly dudes, who quickly slice off her right arm and leg so that their tribe can have something to eat. The world of The Bad Batch is a deeply grisly one, and Amirpour focuses on society’s dregs who have, apparently, been left behind to fight among themselves for scraps.

Part of this film’s initial pleasure is figuring out exactly how its ecosystem works. But as with all sci-fi/fantasy movies, eventually its maker has to move on from the setup, and it’s here where Amirpour struggles mightily. After a daring escape from this tribe of cannibals, Arlen is rescued by a strange scavenger (Jim Carrey, a touch too hammy) who takes her to Comfort, a speck of civilization in this literal desert. Run by a mysterious cult-like leader named Rockwell (Keanu Reeves), Comfort offers raging all-night ravers and the appearance of a working society—basically, it’s what life would be like if you lived at the Coachella music festival year-round—but eventually we’ll discover it has its own problems.

Just as Arlen unearths Comfort’s dark secrets, however, she also runs into conflict with a muscular cannibal known only as Miami Man (Jason Momoa), who’s in search of his wife and daughter. Little does he know that Arlen killed the wife in a tense standoff, taking the little girl (Jayda Fink) with her to Comfort. Though she initially hates Miami Man because he’s a cannibal, Arlen begins to feel a weird primal attraction to this gentle, imposing giant.

You can practically feel the heat rippling through The Bad Batch’s desert scenes, and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who also shot A Girl Walks Home) makes every moment feel desperate and urgent, as if this apocalyptic event was both recent and long in the past. Ultimately, that’s what so frustrating about The Bad Batch: Its themes are so potently suggested by its gritty terrain and junkyard production design (provided by Brandon Tonner-Connolly) that Amirpour’s failure to dream up a story that’s equally inspired feels even more like a betrayal.

It doesn’t help that Arlen is an erratic character. At times, she’s quite resourceful, Waterhouse conveying her steely survival skills during harrowing, quick-response moments. Elsewhere, she’s either absentminded or far too bratty for the dire circumstances. In the realm of these kinds of movies, it’s hard not to think of the gold-standard antiheroes, such as Mel Gibson in the original Mad Max trilogy or Charlize Theron in the 2015 installment. Regardless, what seems imperative when you roam a hellscape is sharp instincts and a formidable intelligence. The weak don’t last long, and there are moments in The Bad Batch when Arlen’s foolishness ought to be fatal.

That might seem like a petty criticism, but it speaks to the film’s emphasis on grand flourishes over tightly plotted or logical sequences. The Bad Batch wants to salute feminism and advocate for the importance of family—even if that family has been thrown together out of tragedy—and Amirpour can build to exhilarating individual scenes that underline her major themes. (As in A Girl Walks Home, she proves here to be a wizard with moody rock songs, although her use of cheesy pop tunes for the sake of irony can be a bit wearying.) But, two films in, she has yet to pull together a coherent vision that ties together her broader notions about alienation and the need to belong.

That’s especially problematic in The Bad Batch when Rockwell proves to be an important character during the final third. Reeves can be a loopy, committed performer—his turn in the gonzo John Wick is fun in large part because he takes the hit-man theatrics deadly seriously—but here, he’s operating on his own dopey wavelength that wrecks the film. Rather than coming across as a frighteningly calm yet unhinged wacko, Rockwell is just goofy, and so the nefarious things going on at Comfort don’t have the gravitas they deserve.

The Bad Batch’s supporting cast tends to overact—Giovanni Ribisi is irksome as a gibberish-spouting lunatic—and some of the movie’s symbolism is achingly precious. (Remember: The town that’s supposed to offer sanctuary is called Comfort, which will result in Arlen later questioning whether she prefers—get it?—Comfort to the wild unknowns of the desert.) Amirpour’s sophomore effort has the funky soul of a graphic novel but not the dark insight to go along with it.

I’m starting to wonder if this will be a permanent condition. When I reviewed her first film, I concluded by saying, “Amirpour … has a real knack for the finely tuned marriage of sound and picture, drafting scenes and moments that stun the senses. If they don’t always mesh together into a compelling whole, they suggest a filmmaker who knows how to let her strengths compensate for her shortcomings. Think what might happen if the shortcomings get addressed.” I’m still waiting.

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Yolonda Ross, Jayda Fink, Cory Roberts, Louie Lopez, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey
Release Date: Screening at the 2016 Toronto Film Festival

Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.