The Bad Batch doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of young director Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) so much as extends it. It’s not a bad film at all, but it is also not a particularly good one. Though it highlights Amirpour’s gift for composition and world building, plotline and dialogue, alas, will have to wait. It seems that Amirpour knows what her weaknesses are, so she limits them and plays to her strength, which is to the film’s credit.
It begins in a future America as Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a lithe, young woman is driven by police officers to a large fenced off desert. She is deposited there with a jug of water and a rucksack and left to fend for herself. It turns out this is where America dumps off the folks it doesn’t want to bother with: drug dealers, the mentally unstable, etc. Arlen, who is too busy applying makeup in an abandoned car to see a golf cart of ne’er do wells approaching her, has a strong survival instinct and manages to escape to a place called Comfort. Comfort is a little easier to deal with. It is populated by what looks like refugees from Burning Man, and is as close a replication of civilization that we’ve seen so far. It is run by The Dream, a white suited man with shades and a Pablo Escobar mustache who presides over the nightly rave and is surrounded by a phalanx of gun-toting pregnant woman.
But this life does not satisfy our heroine. Arlen wants to head back into the desert and take revenge on what was taken from her. (I will not spoil what that is.) She ends up killing the woman who harmed her but ends up saddled with her kid. She takes the child back to Comfort and attempts to rustle up some maternal feelings, but that’s not quite her forte. Meanwhile outside the compound, the child’s father, only known as Miami Man (Jason Momoa), discovers the child missing and sets out to search for her. Not to be messed with, Miami Man has muscles on his muscles, tats all over his torso, and he is quite handy with his knife and hatchet. He also is an artist, constantly doodling in a small notebook.
Amirpour knows what to do with her surroundings. Grungy, trippy and very, very dangerous, this desert is seductive and deadly in equal terms. There’s a certain zonked out sensibility that comes with living in 110 degree heat and no one around for miles. She cross-pollinates Mad Max and Antonioni and almost stitches them together seamlessly, but her pretensions get in the way.
Just when the plot should be leaping forward, it slows to a crawl, and just when you want to find out some character background, someone chops off a leg. Amirpour’s quite enamored with her lead, who looks lovely but can’t act a lick. That hurts a film when the lead is onscreen 85 percent of the time. Luckily, you have Monoa, who imbues his character with deep pathos, though Miami Man does some terrible, unforgivable things.
And then there’s Keanu Reeves as Comfort’s founder and teacher, Rockwell, the aforementioned The Dream. Reeves fully enjoys himself crossing late-period Elvis with Studio 54 glitzy seediness. His monologue on how and where the sewage goes in Comfort is priceless, mostly because of his delivery. Yes, Reeves is great in this. He’s finally developed into an actor worth seeing. He was easily the best thing in The Neon Demon, and he’s close to the best thing here, too.
There are attempts at social commentary here and there, mostly of the ironic variety—the smiley face shorts Arlen wears or the fact that one main character gets tossed in with the riff raff because he’s an illegal immigrant. They don’t quite fall flat. They just feel obvious. The overarching theme seems to be America likes to forget about its malcontents. Out of sight, out of mind, so to speak. Yet even in the toughest, meanest of places, generosity exists and counts for something here.
If you wanted to see a flawed film from someone that will soon be a great director (all the signs are there), The Bad Batch is certainly worth your time. You will get frustrated at times, but it is worth seeing.