While I really and truly love film, I can sometimes be a little conflicted with it. Because it’s truly a culmination of a variety of endeavors, becoming a balance of visuals, music, story, acting and any number of elements that come together to make a truly great film. I know that there are people who view film as a mostly visual medium, deciding that the most important aspect of a movie is how it looks, and what emotions that those visual evoke. Typically, since I consider myself more of a lover of story than visuals, that can cause some problems. Because I’m usually not a person who can give a pass to films that give greater love to their visuals than their story. But, every now and then I come across films that look so absolutely insane, that carry a shockingly unique and fascinating visual style that I decide to put aside some of that storytelling snobbery and attempt to give myself over to the emotion of a visually-driven film. And when I first saw the trailer for Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch, I figured that it was going to be one such film. It looked absolutely insane, a grimy arthouse exploitation flick with motorcycle-riding cannibals, limbless vengeance, and Keanu Reeves looking like a cross between Pablo Escobar and Tony Clifton. But the question remained if this film would be able to be sometime more than a mishmash of weird and interesting images.
The Bad Batch opens up with a woman named Arlen being thrown out into the desert as punishment for an unexplained crime. In the world of the film criminals are banished to a godforsaken patch of desert in the Texas desert, left to die or create some semblance of civilization. And, almost immediately, Arlen is kidnapped by some muscle-bound cannibals, and taken to their camp as food. They then proceed to remove her left arm and leg, and keep her around to harvest the rest. But Arlen manages to kill one of her captives, gets a skateboard, and heads out into the desert to escape the body-builder cannibals who have captured her. She manages to get far away from them, but is about to pass out from heat stroke when she’s saved by a mysterious hermit who picks her up and delivers her to the seemingly only city in the desert, a place called Comfort. Months go by and Arlen has begun some semblance of a life in Comfort, getting a prosthetic leg and trying to find something to pass her time with. And, she eventually stumbles on a purpose. Revenge. She gets a gun and heads back out in to the desert, looking for the cannibals who maimed her. And, luckily, she finds one of them pretty quickly. A woman working for the leader of the group, a giant man named Miami Man, who is out scavenging for food with Miami Man’s daughter. So Arlen kills the woman, and ends up allowing the little girl to follow her back to comfort. Which does not please Miami Man, whose whole life revolves around this little girl.
Arlen and the girl return to Comfort, where she struggles to figure out what to do with the girl. She lets the girl live with her, and even gets her a pet rabbit, but things go poorly when Arlen and the girl attend a rave put on by the leader of Comfort, a mysterious cult leader/club owner named the Dream. Arlen ends up taking a hallucanagenic drug and wanders out into the desert, leaving the girl alone, until she’s taken in by the Dream and his many wives. Arlen walks around in the desert, tripping, until she’s found by Miami Man. He insists that Arlen help him find his daughter, and the two bond a bit while heading back to Comfort. However, another person trapped in the desert finds them, shoots Miami Man, and brings Arlen back to Comfort with him. She then begins trying to track down the little girl, while Miami Man is saved by the same hermit who helped Arlen. Miami Man and the hermit spend time together, while the hermit accidentally teaches Miami Man that family is important, before leaving him with his motorcycle. Meanwhile, Arlen has figured out that the little girl is in the Dream’s home, and manages to get invited inside. She has a talk with the Dream about her purpose in life, and agrees to become one of his wives. But this is all a ploy, and she’s able to hold one of the wives hostage in exchange for the little girl. Arlen and the girl then leave Comfort, find Miami Man, and the three decide to form some sort of little family out in the middle of the desert.
This is a fascinating film that has left me quite confused. I’m really not sure what I think about it, but it’s basically been all I’ve thought about since I’ve seen it. It’s gorgeous, one of the most interestingly shot movies I’ve seen in quite a while. The sheer insanity of the images displayed on the screen is staggering, showing the haunting beauty of the desert mixed with these bizarre Burning Man-esque worlds we’re shown. Reality is ramped up to a hyper degree, having most of the men be burly body builder and the women all svelte badasses. It’s also full of some of the oddest and most satisfying musical choices for a film like this I’ve ever seen, all coming together to create a shockingly unique and bizarre world. Parts of it seem like things I’ve seen before, but while I can identify different inspirations and ingredients, the way they’ve been blended creates something strange and all to itself. The performances in the film are also incredibly odd and memorable, prone to dishing out interesting choices and moments that come to define the character more than the story does.
Which is perhaps my biggest problem with the film. Because, like so many other films that focus on creating a beautifully strange visual language, the story leaves something to be desired. I didn’t need vast explanations of what was going on in the world, like why they’re being imprisoned in the desert, or how the Dream established a goddamn city in a desert prison, but something a little more going on with the character would have been nice. The film establishes that the world is weird and unlike our own. That’s really all the world building we needed. Because this wasn’t a film about the world, it was about these characters. So it would have been beneficial if the characters had more, well, character. They’re just kind of cardboard cutouts, going along with the visuals while not having much depth. I’ve seen this called a love-story, which is a hilariously weird way to describe this film, but that would imply that we end up learning basically anything about Miami Man or Arlen. They’re cyphers, which is a strange choice to make when the movie is essentially a character-piece. However, I wouldn’t say that this fact kills the film. It’s just not totally my preference. A better story and stronger characters certainly would have helped this film, but as it remains the bizarre world that it crafted, and the insane trip it takes you on are enough to have held my interest. It’s a strange film that I think will effect people in wildly different ways, and while it didn’t exactly work for me I certainly don’t regret having seen it, and encourage people to check it out and see what they get from it.
The Bad Batch was written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour and released by Neon, 2017.
Categories: Reel Talk