Ana Lily Amirpour wanted her new film The Bad Batch to be a “psychedelic Western Alice in Wonderland portrait of America.” That portrait includes Ace of Base, cannibalism, and bodybuilding.
Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is our stand-in Alice, and after being branded as part of the “bad batch” and thrown down the rabbit hole, the opening scene happens in near silence. It’s one of the most stunning first acts in recent memory, the Texas desert an oppressively bright stage where monsters can approach from any direction.
Despite the direct sunlight, The Bad Batch, which opens Friday, shares parallels with Amirpour’s 2014 Iranian vampire film A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, a black-and-white genre standout that blurred the line between horror and love story. Arlen ends up in the ironically named Comfort, a rough-hewn refuge for bad batchers, and eventually meets the film’s other totems: sensitive cannibal Miami Man (Jason Momoa), creepy cult leader the Dream (Keanu Reeves), and Hermit (a well-hidden Jim Carrey). Amirpour says Miami Man was written for Momoa: He’s her “cannibal Romeo.”
“I see him as a brutal gladiator maneater slash Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing,” she tells the Daily Dot. “The Cuban version.”
The Bad Batch isn’t heavy-handed about its political themes, but it does sketch out a future where undesirables are exiled and no longer considered American citizens. Once we find out why Miami Man has been cast out, the subtext comes into focus a bit more. Arlen is a white woman seeking unfocused revenge in a place with no laws. There are also forces of good, like the nomadic Hermit, and there are brutal deaths. One in particular drew criticism earlier this month after Amirpour was asked about the portrayal of black people in the film.
“I see America as mixed, deeply mixed,” she says. “In my opinion, across the board, the movie is very mixed. …That’s the thing about a movie. You can’t protect or control; it’s there for you to engage with in whatever way. And [the scene] is brutal. It is the one brutal act that’s the engine of the whole film. It’s not an accident that that happened. But the fact that Miami Man’s baby mama is a black woman is not something that ever was a manipulative choice. That’s just the way I see modern relationships.”
The Bad Batch plays with idea of hierarchy and class, namely via Reeves’ the Dream, the unofficial and opportunistic mayor of Comfort. He has a collection of pregnant, gun-toting followers wearing “The Dream Is Inside Me” shirts and that is a little heavy-handed. There are parts, specifically the third act, where the film lags. You never really care about the Dream or, to an extent, Arlen, who isn’t given enough back story to be painted as good or bad. Miami Man ends up being the most sympathetic character; Amirpour is good at giving her “monsters” emotional depth. But I found myself wondering more about the other bad batchers. Why are they there and who were they before? A little more sketching might have given the film more emotional depth.
“The bad batch for me means when I perceive America I see a whole lot of people that don’t fit neatly into the system,” Amirpour says. “In every city, everywhere I go, I see people that live on the streets. I see the dirty homeless man that everyone ignores on the street corner. And I like the idea that that man might save your life one day, that every human life has some kind of value. So if you feel really deeply upset by the deaths in the film, I think that’s a good thing. It should upset you. Look at how many deaths and violent acts there are in a week of watching movies and TV. And how many of them do you feel, or remember?”
Amirpour says if you want to understand the film, read the lyrics to closing song “Fifty On Our Foreheads” by White Lies. As with A Girl Walks Home, the soundtrack is essential to the mood of the film, a seamless mixtape of ‘80s and ‘90s pop weaved with more obscure tracks. Perhaps the most jarring use of music comes via Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants” in a particularly sadistic early scene. Amirpour really just likes the song: “I love the idea that a movie can resuscitate a track that dope, too.”
Though Amirpour wrote The Bad Batch three years ago, the subtext is of course heavier now. But she’s hopeful.
“It’s not like a light switch was flipped in January,” she says. “I think people are very good at deluding themselves into thinking that their reality is reality. That’s a survival skill; we all have to do it. …But I’m a deeply optimistic person and I do believe that people do have the potential for good.”