Ana Lily Amirpour art film

THE BAD BATCH Review: A Silent, Empty (Yet Often Fascinating) World

Monday, June 26, 2017 Rob Samuelson

The modern world screams at you. Pings, buzzes, and flashing screens compete for our attention all the time, reminding us of the busy work we “must” complete and of our faults. This information onslaught is exhausting. It’s enough make anyone plead for silence.

Photo credit: The Bad Batch/Facebook

But silence is overrated.

Just ask Arlen (Suki Waterhouse). She exists -- she doesn’t live in any real sense -- in a post-apocalyptic Texas after being released from a prison near the border of a wretched no man’s land. You know the drill with these stories about wastelands. There are no laws or government. Only warlords and chaos reign in a dusty and sun-baked desert -- water looks to have gone the way of the dodo. Captured by a band of scavengers, Arlen loses an arm and a leg because, well, desert people need to eat, too. And it all happens with everyone barely uttering a word. This is efficient cruelty, devoid of distraction. People no longer have time for distractions in this place. They must only survive, and you don’t need words to do that.

Despite the relentless silence, there remain echoes of a world the audience would recognize. Arlen winds up in a way station in the middle of the desert. Its walls are made of shipping containers, atop which armed guards pace back and forth, waiting for some unwholesome person to test their aim. Inside is a Hooverville of tented shelters, broken televisions, street vendors selling high-sodium foods, and various kinds of malfunctioning electronic equipment. It’s not much, but at least the misfits who live here aren’t chopping off limbs to feed on. And hey, they pool their resources for late-night raves where the drugs flow like the water they can’t find anywhere in this empty and bleak sandscape.

Emptiness and bleakness inform everything in The Bad Batch, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s follow-up to A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Arlen is not a character so much as a cipher. Unlike most movies, this is a positive thing because Amirpour has something besides character building on her mind -- she wants to build a world. With the assistance of some light CGI, Arlen’s missing limbs enhance her general countenance of loss. This world misses society. It tries to move on from the collapse, but it ambles forward in a fashion that’s not quite right, just like how Arlen shuffles, aided by a rickety mechanical leg. There’s something off, something absent. That’s why everything is quiet. Everyone sits around, listless, not knowing what to say because there’s nothing to say, nothing to do. They’re fearful only of losing that which is already empty.

Filling that void is the shanty town’s de facto mayor, a man dressed in an impeccable white suit played by a pudgier than normal Keanu Reeves -- how he managed to pack on the pounds after starring as a martial arts master only a few months earlier in John Wick: Chapter 2 is a story that should be told on The Bad Batch’s eventual Blu-ray special features. He’s more talkative than most in this grainy oasis, but his words arrive slowly, after much consideration. Although it takes him forever to get the words out, they are esoteric, bordering on meaningless. They’re useful only to describe his power. In one scene he uses the metaphor of a toilet to make Arlen understand that he has the power to make bad and disgusting things go away, and that’s about as coherent as he gets -- it’s probably due to all of the drugs he consumes along with his “constituents.”

Amirpour’s world of busted mechanical devices and glowing neon is a fascinating one to spend time in, but it comes at the cost of telling a story that goes from point A to point B -- the movie often feels like its incoherent mayor. If there’s a plot in The Bad Batch, it is about Arlen finding and then returning the daughter (Jayda Fink) of the warlord (Jason Momoa) whose people relieved Arlen of her limbs. But these scenes often occur in a way that feels almost out of order. The little girl disappears for long stretches of time, and Waterhouse and Momoa are put together for scenes that are meant to imply menace on his part and/or sexual chemistry between them, but instead the scenes just read like two bored classmates forced to work together on a project. Here, the movie’s penchant for silence detracts from the overall effect, because the quiet performers never gel.

These detours at least give Amirpour the opportunity to deploy the movie’s secret weapon, a bearded and sunburnt Jim Carrey, who plays a mute wanderer. Dropping his manic, cocaine-fueled onscreen persona entirely, Carrey displays warmth, which is another echo of a time before cannibalism was commonplace. His eccentric kindness may be a subtle reminder of days long gone (and possibly, if things go well over the coming decades of this fictional Hell world, days to come), but his literal lack of a voice is another reminder, a crueler one. This is a world that has forgotten to talk. In the place of verbalization is brutality, warfare, and fear.

It’s enough to make one wish for a little less silence.

Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Writer: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Diego Luna, Jim Carrey
Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Available in limited release and on demand now

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