It’s about ten or so minutes into The Bad Batch that you realize that you, the viewer, are really in for it.
It was around the time that a leg is sawed off of a living person followed shortly thereafter by a musical montage of bodybuilders lifting weights in a desert trailer park. Things get even stranger and more brutal from there, but the movie never quite reaches the high bar set by those opening moments.
The second film from A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night director Ana-Lily Amirpour, The Bad Batch is a similarly fantastical genre mashup that solidifies the filmmaker as one of the most unique and thoroughly unpredictable cinematic forces working today. Where A Girl was an unlikely combination of vampire romance and spaghetti western, The Bad Batch is basically a post-apocalyptic fairy tale. Think Mad Max on LSD with some John Hughes mixed in for good measure!
Set in near future America where criminals, weirdos, and other misfits and misanthropes – part of the so-called “bad batch” – are tattooed with a number and shipped off to a lawless wasteland somewhere south of Texas, the film follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a bad girl who quickly – and painfully – discovers she is no match for the locals. Captured by a gang of cannibals led by the terrifying Joe (Jason Momoa), Arlen survives a horrific ordeal and escapes into the desert. She soon finds herself in Comfort, a Burning Man-esque enclave run by the mysterious Rockwell (Keanu Reeves in pasty Pablo Escobar mode), and in possession of information desperately sought by her bloodthirsty former captor Joe.
Like Amirpour’s previous work, The Bad Batch features very little dialogue and a whole lot of music. Waterhouse’s character doesn’t say a word until about 30 minutes in – and she’s talkative by bad batcher standards. Saying even less is the nameless desert hermit (played by a nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey) who unknowingly sets Arlen and Joe on a fateful collision course. High marks must go to Giovanni Ribisi’s rambling Comfort kook Bobby, who likely has more lines in one scene than the rest of the actors in the film combined, and to Diego Luna for spinning those records so well as Comfort’s resident DJ.
Thankfully the film doesn’t need much talking to get the point across. The director’s pitch perfect music choices go a long way towards setting a mood and amping up the drama (Culture Club + Cannibal BBQ = Never being able to listen to Boy George again), but at certain points the film can feel more like a music video or silent movie than a narrative feature. That’s not a bad thing most of the time, however the middle of the movie sags badly due to several somewhat aimless asides and a desert drug trip which goes on far too long.
Brash, ballsy, but ultimately lacking some of the fire of its predecessor, The Bad Batch is a solid sophomore effort from Amirpour. It’s a movie that going to have you talking – and clutching your limbs – long after you leave the cinema.
This review was originally published as part of our TIFF 2016 coverage.