The Bad Batch: Comfort Zone, by Josh Long
Ana Lily Amirpour’s first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was a revelation in the 2015 film scene. Sleek, edgy, cool, with an inescapable socio-political message, it stood out from the crowd in a way that made many of us excited to see what the filmmaker would do next. No one could say it would be easy to top her first film, but Amirpour is definitely up for the challenge. Her new film, The Bad Batch, is longer, bigger budget, and has a much broader scope.
Within the first ten minutes of The Bad Batch, we’ve seen our central character, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), thrown into a post-American wasteland, kidnapped, and dismembered of her right arm and leg. Without a word of dialogue spoken, the film lets us know that this is a wild and dangerous world. Its members are all criminals labelled as the titular “Bad Batch,” too dangerous, volatile, or what have you for the prison system. They’re sent out into a wasteland that was once part of Texas, and left to fend for themselves. Out in the wasteland, the primary groups we get to know are those dwelling in a makeshift town called “Comfort,” and a group of cannibals called the “Bridge People.”
Arlen is originally kidnapped by the Bridge People but is able to escape and make her way to Comfort. She wants revenge on the people who ate her arm and leg. In an effort to take revenge, she comes across a little girl whose father is one of the Bridge People. The girl triggers something in her that questions whether people are better off within the walls of Comfort or taking their chances out in the wilderness.
Amirpour shows us once again that she is a fantastic visual storyteller. Vibrant, cinematic and well framed shots drive a story with very little dialogue. While the black and white panache of Girl Walks Home isn’t present here, there is still great use of contrast, and the desert makes for a visually stark setting. The slow pacing is usually effective, with a few notable exceptions. The most propulsive moments in the story are used up within the first thirty minutes, and after that, there is rarely enough tension to justify long unbroken shots of silent characters.
The Girl of Amirpour’s first film was able to remain distant and silent because we knew there was a mystery surrounding her. Arlen doesn’t have the same mystery, so it’s much easier to become tired of her. Waterhouse’s performance isn’t the strongest either – we have difficulty accepting that she belongs in this society, and it doesn’t help that her Texan accent slips here and there into her natural British. The stand out in terms of performance is Jim Carrey, in a surprising cameo as a mute hermit wandering the wasteland. He’s perfectly balanced weird and wise, and is hardly recognizable.
Also to be noted is the special effects work, particularly the effects on Arlen’s arm and leg. Whatever practical or CG effects they use to create this illusion are seamless. The story doesn’t call for much else in terms of special effects, but this is a big one, as Arlen is probably on screen for eighty percent of the film.
Not one for subtlety, Amirpour once again crafts a story that wears its themes on its sleeve. A city named Comfort calls to mind the Bunyanesque naming of Girl Walks Home’s “Bad City.” Within comfort we find calls from the enigmatic leader of the commune (Keanu Reeves) to “follow the dream.” The ubiquitous American flags of Comfort make obvious what this place is meant to represent. In breaking down the way that the sewer system hides their shit from the residents of Comfort, Reeves’ character suggests to Arlen that his city is a place of escape. A place of insulation and, well, comfort. This leaves Arlen to wonder what she may be sacrificing for “the dream,” and whether or not the best life is the one spent pretending her shit doesn’t exist. The theme is poignant but the analogy is strained at times–particularly in Arlen’s actions toward the end of the film. There is a sense that she is motivated by the themes, not by natural character and plot progression.
Despite some flaws in the story and performance, The Bad Batch contains some masterful visual storytelling, a well-imagined future world, and striking allegory. Ana Lily Amirpour is certainly growing as a filmmaker and I’m excited to see what she takes on next.