Ana Lily Amirpour’s The Bad Batch luxuriates in the self-contradictory notion of a romantic dystopia, likening a barbarous world to a high school caste system. Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is the “new kid,” a drifter banished into the Bad Batch, a track of Texan desert wasteland that’s been disowned by the United States so that it can have a place to flush out its undesirables without having to feign a pretense of responsibility. Think Escape from New York or, say, the actual story of America’s formation. Bad Batch suggests an extreme border town, in which people live among debris underneath the punishing heat and rival gangs fight over scarce resources. Arlen is captured by cannibals, who saw off one of her arms and legs for a barbeque, while Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” plays in the background. Since A Girl Walks Alone Home at Night, Amirpour has learned a few lessons from Quentin Tarantino about the disreputable joys of blending kitsch and ultraviolence.
Unlike most of Tarantino’s disciples, Amirpour understands how his films derive their cathartic sense of catch and release, which doesn’t spring from the jokey pop-cultural references. There’s an obsessive, languorous sense of waiting in Tarantino’s films, which informs the violence with a supernatural dread that Amirpour emulates throughout The Bad Batch with prodigious skill. When one of this film’s cannibals, Miami Man (Jason Momoa), approaches a captured woman whose neck he’s about to snap, Amirpour hypnotically trails him from behind, framing Momoa as an erotically dangerous monolith, drinking in his phenomenal body in a fashion that realizes Momoa’s potential as an icon. Though Amirpour must also, disappointingly, underline this passage with an ironically fatuous song selection, Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” not recognizing when enough is enough.
Like many genre films fashioned by the aspiring hipper than thou and indebted to the doomy self-pity of 1980s-era post-punk art, The Bad Batch nakedly yearns to be a cult classic—an aim that’s within its reach when it isn’t trying so hard. Amirpour has also learned a few lessons from Kathryn Bigelow, embracing fluid editing rhythms that establish a setting’s alluring alien-ness. This film’s desert setting is memorably terrifying, framed in compositions that emphasize the punishing hardness of the parched ground and the shrill brightness of the sun, from which there’s little shelter. Vast compositions of Arlen wandering this terrain contrast her vulnerable and often fetishized legs and buttocks against the pitiless elements, and evoke Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Near Dark while finding their own surreal groove. Passages that depict men skateboarding, clubbing, and lifting weights suggest Point Break’s understanding of machismo that’s channeled to compensate for a lack of opportunity. Despite her many fealties to other artists, which is common of young filmmakers, Amirpour is a strikingly sensual and confident formalist.
The Bad Batch initially appears plotless, which plays to Amirpour’s strengths. Arlen escapes the cannibals and wanders arbitrarily back and forth between their camp and Comfort, a community in the Bad Batch that’s run by the amusingly smug The Dream (Keanu Reeves), who sports a Pablo Escobar mustache and talks of “the dream” with the superficially empowering vagueness of politicians or cult leaders who’re out to fill their beds and line their coffers. The contrast between these societies is resonant: Even the Bad Batch, which represents the dregs of the U.S., must divide into various classes and gated communities that allow the disenfranchised to enjoy their own brand of superiority. Amirpour fills the frame with sight gags that complement this satirical possibility: A woman strolls throughout Comfort dressed as the Statue of Liberty, and a sign insists that “You can’t enter the dream unless the dream enters you,” an innuendo that’s confirmed by The Dream’s concubines, who wear T-shirts that proclaim “The Dream Is Inside Me.”
These glib flourishes, however, grow tiresome, as Amirpour is too preoccupied with totemic bad-assery (Alejandro Jodorowsky is another of her influences) to concern herself with the emotional textures of this world. Arlen isn’t even allowed to be momentarily upset at losing two of her appendages, instead pushing forward as the narrative demands, playing the role of the avenging babe of few words. (By contrast, Kill Bill’s The Bride was marked by spasms of despair, and the studs of Point Break were vividly lost and confused, especially by their attraction to one another.) More troublingly, a conceit that’s evocative of monstrous border practices is eventually utilized as a white woman’s harlequin fantasy of living on the wrong side of the tracks, with the real man who’s in touch with his survivalist instincts, in this case Miami Man, rather than The Dream, a soft, self-righteous, and debauched hypocrite.
Amirpour reduces politically loaded signifiers to a battle of the cliques. Will beautiful Arlen choose the preppie or the troubled rebel? Never mind that the troubled rebel tried to eat Arlen, and that Arlen killed said rebel’s woman and kidnapped his daughter, as we’re supposed to conveniently brush off such complications for a romance of acceptance. The studied naïveté of The Bad Batch’s ending is in ridiculous bad taste, offering the narrative equivalent of a comfortable American woman who might move, say, to Ciudad Juárez because San Diego is just a bit dullish this time of year.