Jim Carrey’s career has zigged and zagged in a number of directions over the years, but he’s never taken a role as strange as the one he tackles in “The Bad Batch.” The actor surfaces early in Ana Lily Amirpour’s dystopian Western, almost unrecognizable beneath a scruffy beard, and never speaks a single word. While he only appears in a handful of scenes, The Hermit is one of a few memorably outlandish characters in Amirpour’s dark vision, a silent, nomadic figure who roams the desert with a shopping cart and winds up rescuing the film’s amputee heroine (Suki Waterhouse) after she escapes a gang of cannibals.
This cool and risky performance is a world away from the hyperbolic delivery of Ace Ventura, and suggests the physicality of slapstick comedy folded into a post-apocalyptic milieu. But so far, Carrey hasn’t said a word about it.
When “The Bad Batch” premiered on the festival circuit last fall, Carrey was absent from the promotional trail, and he didn’t resurface when distributor Neon released the movie in theaters and VOD June 23. (Keanu Reeves, who has a more prominent role as the movie’s Hugh Hefner-like villain The Dream, made a few brief appearances.) Carrey’s name doesn’t appear in prominent marketing for the movie, including the poster. One line of thinking was that the actor, who spent only five days on set, treated the part as a cameo and wanted his appearance to be a surprise, but that logic falls short considering that he was part of an official casting announcement for the project in early 2015.
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The real reason for Carrey’s silence is harder to discern. It’s possible that his reps had his name removed from earlier drafts of marketing materials because they didn’t want the project associated with his brand. However, a source close to the actor disputed that idea, insisted that even before Carrey started shooting the movie, his contract stipulated that his name and likeness would not be used in advertising. (That’s a common arrangement for cameos.) A rep for Neon did not respond to requests for comment.
However, the director herself has plenty to say about Carrey’s performance. In multiple interviews, Amirpour recounted how she landed a meeting with Carrey to discuss the role of a comedic doctor in the film, a part that she eventually cut out of the story. On her way over to his home studio, she called her producers at Annapurna Pictures to tell them that she would offer the Hermit role instead. “When he opened the door, he had this full beard like the character, and I had goosebumps,” Amirpour told LA Weekly, adding that Carrey wasn’t especially keen on the doctor character, but eagerly accepted the part she had in mind.
Carrey was reportedly a fan of “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” Amirpour’s 2014 debut, an expressionistic, black-and-white vampire story. “I was like, if he loves ‘Girl,’ and this script, I know he’s going to want to do this movie,” she said during an interview with IndieWire in September. “It’s a small part if you really want to quantify it that way, but really, he saves her life… it’s kind of massive. I knew he was going to want to play that other part. It was a decoy. I just put it there so that his agent would read a lot of dialogue.”
When she sat down with the actor, Amirpour added, “he got it instantly… I was like, this is fate. In a way, he is the Hermit. Who can understand what it’s like to spend 30 years doing Jim Carrey movies? It’s a weird thing to become a movie star. You become defined by this thing that preexists. It was liberating.”
Ironically, Amirpour’s anarchic approach to hooking the actor for the project probably did no favors when it came to Carrey’s ability to promote the role, and almost certainly baffled the agents who set up him for a different part. But whatever the reason, Carrey’s absence is a missed opportunity. These days, his image remains tethered to traditional, and fraying, comedy roots. In recent weeks, he has promoted the Showtime drama “I’m Dying Up Here,” which he executive produced; so far, it has faced mediocre press. On the red carpet for the show’s premiere, Carrey wound up defending Kathy Griffin for her ill-advised decapitated Trump stunt, but nobody asked him about “The Bad Batch.”
Nevertheless, the role stands out as one of the most exciting actor transformations in ages, in part because it’s a reminder of what can happen when he pushes beyond his default mode. Back when he was a major box office draw, Carrey put a lot of effort into expanding his range with wonderful, eclectic results: “The Cable Guy” was an audacious extension of his cartoonish persona into a metaphor for the invasion of home entertainment in the American household, and “The Truman Show” shaved the edges off his goofy delivery for an ironic everyman trapped in the movie of his boring life.
He was perfectly cast as Andy Kaufman in Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon,” which remains the actor’s richest performance to date, but he didn’t stop there. He brought an extraordinary authenticity to the somber, romantic hipster at the center of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and used his penchant for broad comedy to bolster the story of a slick gay con man in the underrated 2009 drama “I Love You Phillip Morris.”
In “The Bad Batch,” Carrey once again ventures into fresh terrain, pushing beyond the boundaries of anything he’s done before to portray a wizened, world-weary figure fighting to make it through each day in a vacant wasteland. It’s a welcome shift, one that indicates a yearning to break away from formula and support filmmakers chasing original ideas. At a point where comedy stars are struggling for good material (or settling for mediocrity), Carrey’s decision to take a risk with “The Bad Batch” should be a model for his brethren, and he’d make a terrific spokesperson for that cause. On that subject, however, he remains as mute as his character.
“The Bad Batch” is now in theaters and available on VOD platforms.