This may sound like a weird way to start off a review, but one of my favorite things about living on the West Coast is taking the drive between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Maybe that comes from seeing The Hills Have Eyes as a kid, where I’ve always been fascinated by folks who could possibly live in that environment, and that’s most likely why I find myself endlessly curious about all the various abandoned homes and properties you see as you drive along I-15 from Cali to Sin City (especially a few years ago when I noticed a string of odd symbols that seemed to pop up everywhere for about a 10-mile stretch—so creepy!).
Because of my tendencies to daydream about all the possibilities out there in that rain-starved terrain, you can understand how I was a pretty easy mark for Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch: her dreamy, desert-trip-meets-cannibalistic-love-story Western. Amirpour’s sun-soaked dystopic tale captured my fascination with this environment so perfectly, and it’s great to see Amirpour continuing to embrace making films with such an unabashed sense of cinematic exploration, much like her debut feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. It’s definitely not going to be a film for everyone, but for me, The Bad Batch was precisely everything I was looking for and then some.
In The Bad Batch, Suki Waterhouse plays Arlen, a former inmate and “Bad Batch” member who is unceremoniously released into the desert after serving her time, only to find herself taken hostage by a group of desert-dwelling cannibals at “The Bridge,” who decide to put a few of her appendages on their depraved menu. After narrowly escaping their clutches, Arlen finds herself in the middle of “Comfort,” a nearby compound overseen by “The Dream” (Keanu Reeves), offering both a reprieve and a chance at a somewhat stable life in the arid wasteland. Thinking she finally escaped the horrors of The Bridge, Arlen decides to venture out, but comes across a few of its scavenging residents in the area. That chance meeting ends up having a huge impact on Arlen, who takes it upon herself to bring home one of the cannibal kiddos, enraging one of the commune’s leaders (Jason Momoa), who will stop at nothing to retrieve what Arlen has taken away from him.
While it’s a fair assessment to say that The Bad Batch doesn’t have a story that’s wholly spelled out for viewers (verbally at least), I appreciated both Amirpour’s abstract approach to this world and the way she would often rely on her strong visual style as a filmmaker to do some of the heavy lifting. Amirpour forces viewers to look inwards, or think about things far deeper than the surfaces she often cinematically scratches, and within The Bad Batch, there is a lot of interesting material to ponder long after the credits roll (in fact, certain aspects of it have really stuck with me even now, a few weeks later).
With The Bad Batch, Amirpour has created an interesting character study of folks who are seen as broken when compared to the standards of normal society, and how they come together in an unforgiving world (both literally and figuratively). The way Amirpour utilizes even her background players is mesmerizing: every face has a story and those are stories I would gladly spend more time with (one fun note: I think I spotted WWE’s Tough Enough competitor Mada as one of the residents of The Bridge).
As Arlen, Waterhouse gives a performance ripe with personality and swagger, even after she loses a few limbs, and the actress is wholly fascinating to follow from start to finish. One key moment that perfectly summarizes Arlen is when, right after she is released, with not a soul seemingly around her, she stops to fix her makeup in a car, hinting at her desire for normalcy in a world that wasn’t about to cut her any breaks. Another beautiful moment in The Bad Batch was when Arlen cuts out pieces of a model pictorial from a magazine, attaches the cutout to the mirror, and tries to imagine herself as “whole” again. In a way, that moment feels like not only a haunting reminder of what she’s lost physically, but perhaps spiritually as well, and it makes for a great allegory for moving on past previous relationships and the difficulty that comes with trying to piece yourself back together again.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have one Achilles’ heel as a film fan and that’s Keanu Reeves. I have endured many painful movies (and a lot of awesome ones, too) over the years to support Reeves’ cinematic career, but thankfully with The Bad Batch, Amirpour just sets him loose and Reeves is absolutely phenomenal here. So few actors could pull off a role called “The Dream,” but there’s this intangible, enigmatic quality that Reeves has always possessed as an actor that makes it not only easy to “buy” whatever it is that he’s selling to his faithful followers at “Comfort,” but it also makes him endlessly entertaining to watch. “Pornstache Reeves” from The Bad Batch might officially be a Top Five Keanu for me now. He’s so great. Both Momoa and Jim Carrey (who does his role without uttering a single word) also turn in strong work in The Bad Batch, even if I didn’t find Momoa’s Cuban accent all that convincing.
As a whole, Amirpour has a lot to be proud of with The Bad Batch. Her work is bold, unflinching, and often challenging, and I would expect nothing less from her as a filmmaker. There are some interesting underlying parallels between this film and her first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which would make for a helluva double feature.
Movie Score: 4/5