“The Bad Batch” turns a completely ridiculous premise — dystopian warfare in a sun-bleached desert filled with cannibals, a raving cult leader, desperate thieves and LSD — into a warm, at times even elegant salute to the transformative power of companionship. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s sleek debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” another creepy premise given fresh life. With “The Bad Batch,” Amirpour pairs elements of “Mad Max” and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” with western flavor for another beguiling ride. The scale has expanded and there are a few more recognizable faces this time around, but nothing about the movie’s inspired wackiness bears the whiff of compromise.
“The Bad Batch” further solidifies the strength of Amirpour’s idiosyncratic vision, which takes familiar details and bends them into spiky bursts of unpredictability. Whereas the melancholic black-and-white milieu of “Girl” featured a lonely vampire in an Iranian ghost town and the somber pariah who falls for her, “The Bad Batch” remixes some of the same beats with a neo-western makeover. Amirpour once again follows a sullen, isolated woman as she roams an empty landscape and finds camaraderie in the unlikeliest of places. “The Bad Batch” doesn’t quite match the imaginative polish of Amirpour’s debut, but it excels at fusing outrageous genre pastiche with a colorful homegrown universe.
Nothing in “The Bad Batch” can match its stunning opening scenes, a wordless blend of horror and suspense that establishes its minimalist world of devious outcasts. In the vaguely post-apocalyptic setting, pariahs deemed unworthy of society are exiled to the lawless American desert and forced to fend for their lives. The movie begins with Arlen (British model Suki Waterhouse, stern and anxious) venturing into the orange wasteland, only to become the prey of a local cannibal gang that lives in the midst of an airplane graveyard. Amirpour wastes no time ramping up the intensity: Limps get loped off, blood spurts wildly and the wrenching visceral details of Arlen’s captivity promptly enter “The Texas Chainsaw” territory. But then Arlen finds her way to a desperate escape, strapped to the front of a skateboard, as “The Bad Batch” careens in another intriguing direction.
Like a freewheeling graffiti riff on the western backdrop that inspired it, “The Bad Batch” settles into its setting with the leisurely second act, set months later in a fortified town called Comfort. Now one-armed and a sporting a prosthetic leg, drifter Arlen bears more than a little in common with “Mad Max: Fury Road” scene-stealer Furiosa, and has a similar fighting spirit. When she exacts revenge on one cannibal on Comfort’s outskirts, she winds up bringing home the dead woman’s child, which leads her brawny father to launch a rescue mission. A scowling mass of muscles in a flimsy wife-beater, the no-nonsense Miami Man (Jason Momoa) heads straight toward Comfort, where he encounters a dazed Arlen in the midst of an acid trip. From there, the pair forge an unlikely bond as he forces her to help him track down the missing girl, and she discovers a kindred spirit in his alienated existence.
The expressionistic setting drifts through various odd confrontations with a grander sense of scale than Amirpour’s previous film. Once again aided by cinematographer Lyle Vincent, “The Bad Batch” answers the moody shadows of “Girl” with washed-out redness of rocky exteriors (almost the entire film takes place outdoors) and smooth camerawork that never breaks the narrative spell. But the evolution in production is particularly notable from the addition of a few recognizable faces.
In only a handful of scenes without a single line of dialogue, Jim Carrey is virtually unrecognizable as a mute nomad pushing a shopping cart around the desert and shifting allegiances as he watches various dramas from afar. It’s an amusing cameo that turns Carrey into a kind of grungy figure of slapstick.
Tackling a more prominent role, Keanu Reeves takes on much greater prominence in the film’s uneven final third, as a psychedelically-charged Jim Jones-like spiritual leader who holds court over Comfort from a giant boom box where the town gathers for histrionic raves. Long-haired, mustachioed and hiding behind shades, Reeves drifts into the movie like a dreamlike version of his usual introverted cinematic persona with mixed results. His monologues about supporting the town (specifically “the shit comes out all your little assholes”) have a gimmicky quality out of sync with the more fully realized aspects of the embellished scenario found elsewhere; ditto the cult of pregnant women he keeps like pets in his enclave, who wear t-shirts emblazoned with the blunt slogan “the dream is inside me.”
But “The Bad Batch” shifts gears so often that it’s bound to show a few cracks in its conceits. Amirpour’s script finds steadier ground when developing the chemistry between Arlen and Miami Man, an unlikely pairing that grows more credible as they find a mutual source of frustration in the system that cast them out in the first place. While in one sense a prolonged metaphor for a broken society driven to extremes through rampant neglect, it’s also a vivid call to arms for ostracized souls to reshape their conditions by coming together.
As a whole, Amirpour presents these evocative concepts as a form of absurdist poetry, heightened by a pop music backdrop and surrealist imagery. “We’re in the darkest corners of the earth, and we’re afraid of our own kind,” one character laments, and it registers as a rallying call in the midst of the madness. Judging by her first two features, that would appear to be Amirpour’s artistic manifesto. But it’s less didactic than creatively endearing, a repurposing of storytelling conventions in a unique ideological context. “The Bad Batch” molds one genre after another into something new — an original voice on par with the attitude of its fiercely independent characters.
“The Bad Batch” premiered at the 2016 Venice Film Festival and will next screen at TIFF. It is currently seeking distribution.