PLOT: After being labeled one of "the bad batch" by a society that casts her out, a young woman named Arlen must find her place in a desert wasteland occupied entirely by outcasts and murderers.
REVIEW: Sophomore slumps don't hit much harder than THE BAD BATCH, Ana Lily Amirpour's followup to her subtle, sublime GIRL WALKS ALONE HOME AT NIGHT. Not that we should compare the two, as Amirpour's clearly going for something different with her new one, which is different in tone, scope and vision, but it can't be ignored that her 180 in direction has produced a film that is extremely ponderous and unrewarding. Thankfully, memories of GIRL still loom large, so I have reason to believe she'll regain her mojo down the line. THE BAD BATCH is worth leaving behind ASAP.
Set in an unexplained future (or alternate reality) where society's undesirables are set adrift in the desert, the film's loose narrative revolves around recently expelled Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) as she navigates a pitiless terrain filled with cannibals, spaced-out cultists and various wanderers and vagrants. The film's opening sequences are compelling, a nearly dialogue-free stretch that sees Arlen quickly set upon by a savage group led by the hulking Miami Man (Jason Momoa). She loses an arm and a leg, literally, but manages to escape, and the rest of the film details a seemingly endless amount of droning encounters with the desert's weirdos.
From the get-go, Amirpour's film appears to be straining for cult movie status, with most touches coming off as self-consciously affected. Scenes go on for way too long for no reason other than to pile on vacant gazes and/or faux-philosophical sermonizing. GIRL is an unhurried movie too, but it's imbued with ominous portent, almost every scene purring with sensual suspense, while BAD BATCH never conjures up a stimulating atmosphere. Like most of its characters, BAD BATCH has the laconic, hazy attitude of a person who's been roaming the desert for way too long. Amirpour frequently uses recognizable pop hits ("All That She Wants"; "Karma Chameleon") to juxtapose the grim offerings on screen, although they don't exactly bring much other than juxtaposition.
When it does summon some energy, the tone turns strikingly silly. Most of this comes courtesy of a commune called Comfort, which is led by The Dream (Keanu Reeves), a charismatic Jim Jones/David Koresh type who keeps a small village of followers harmonious thanks to a steady supply of drugs. Like a headtrip at a hippie music fest, the scenes in Comfort are clunky alternatives to the stagnant passages in the harsh desert, where Arlen and Miami Man eventually team up to find the latter's missing daughter.
The film manages to eek out a handful of poignant moments, and the notion that Arlen and Miami Man might even build a relationship - despite the glaring fact that the latter is responsible for the former's amputations - is a compelling one. But Amirpour squashes most of the good will with a narrative that can be described as aimless at best. All of this adds up to not much at all; the third act has almost no tension, and a climactic sequence between the Arlen and The Dream contains lots of talk but fairly little substance. Surely, Amirpour is interested in gender politics, with Miami Man and The Dream representing two persuasive male figures Arlen must contend with as she finds her way, and there are allegorical flourishes throughout (you can imagine Donald Trump being very favor in the notion of deporting The Bad Batch), but THE BAD BATCH's lumbering pace and uneventful storytelling overrule everything else.
The casting of the film is interesting, neither helping nor hindering it. Waterhouse is lovely to look at but can't bring much life to Arlen beyond her beguiling face (to be fair, there isn't much of a character for her to work with). Momoa is suitably imposing and sees to it that Miami Man has a measure of introspection, while Reeves is just fine as a loquacious charlatan. Jim Carrey shows up, bizarrely, as a silent vagabond who helps both Miami Man and Arlen on their journeys, and Geovani Ribisi is rather ridiculous as a flamboyant lunatic who prances about The Dream's compound. Blink and you'll miss Diego Luna as Comfort's resident DJ.
THE BAD BATCH is pretty bad indeed, but let's keep hope alive for Amirpour's next outing. She's almost certainly better than this.