Suggesting a music video inexplicably prolonged to 110 slow minutes, Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night continues the earlier film’s inventorying of cool cinephilic tics in service of a threadbare narrative. The Bad Batch is a mixtape movie in the vein of Drive or Beasts of the Southern Wild, a grab bag of visual punchlines and topical references capped with interchangeable music tracks—ironic ’80s pop for scenes of especial brutality, ominous synth swoons for lengthy passages of soul-searching, or the flipside when the formula needs reversing. While many have dropped the phrase “mash-up” to describe Amirpour’s general auteurist project in the past, The Bad Batch dumps agonizing freight onto the tension (already beyond-stressed) between loving homage and fervid derivation.
The nominal “batch” refers to whomever the sight-unseen U.S. government has barred from citizenship, an oppressively opaque super-metaphor that lets Amirpour’s screenplay go wherever the hell it wants without risking momentum or plausibility—both tertiary-at-best concerns from the start. The grouping would appear to include undocumented immigrants and desiccated androgynous bodybuilders, but also a leggy blonde named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), who’s released from incarceration in the film’s introductory minutes—sentence and cause, again, unspecified. Arlen wanders the desert until she’s kidnapped and blindfolded by a pack of cannibals that includes a tatted-up man-mountain, Miami Man (Jason Momoa, sporting perhaps the silver screen’s most marble-mouthed put-on of a Latino accent to date), and his young daughter. Barely seen, the kidnappers decide to saw Arlen’s leg and arm off for dinner, but she still manages to kill one of them and escape, working her way to a more forgiving community further into the desert.
With its skaters, Chinese food carts, and raving-mad maniacs sifting among the bedraggled flotsam of post-American America, this new encampment provides grist for one of The Bad Batch’s more socio-politically evocative passages. Outfitted with a prosthetic leg and revolver, Arlen comes across Miami Man’s girlfriend and child scavenging on the outskirts of the camp and reciprocally takes the child as collateral. They then visit a place known as Comfort, which is lorded over by a self-anointed messiah, Rockwell (Keanu Reeves). It’s there that Arlen ingests LSD, loses track of the kid, and goes for a desert-wander that runs her directly back into Miami Man’s arms—a psychic trip rendered with time-lapse cosmic photography and sleepy, brain-fryingly amateurish editing-room gimmicks. An unrecognizable Jim Carrey also turns up, as a wordless frontier vagrant, in apparent continuance of the 1999 MTV Movie Awards art-performance where he capped his speech by asking: “Would it kill you every once in a while to play a little Foghat?!”
Arlen eventually penetrates Comfort to get Miami Man his daughter back, providing Rockwell with the chance to deliver a junky monologue intended to shed some exposition on whatever happened in the bygone pre-apocalyptic years. A rapprochement of sorts takes place between Arlen and her former captor, but the anticlimax is off-putting: The Bad Batch concludes on a note of (very funny) tonal dissonance that hints, maddeningly, at what could have been. Lyle Vincent’s wide-canvas images are abundant in desert-rave colors, skirting a telltale line between the appetizing and the punishing. Whether it’s someone gnawing into human flesh or one of the embarrassment of close-ups on Waterhouse’s cutoffs-adorned butt, these shots are given, paradoxically, too much oomph; they’re telegraphed less like narrative units and more like demo-reel showstoppers. Every last flourish is delivered in such explicit “cinematic” clarity that the film comes off terrified of its audience doing the least bit of work—all the more shame, then, that Amirpour’s script pathologically refuses to find anything to say.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.