“Cows stand in their own shit because they’re cows.”
The classification of “instant cult classic” always strikes me as wrong. A “true” cult classic takes time to develop that status; to build up an audience of outliers who buck the trend and come to find the beauty in films that the majority are repelled by. With cult classics, yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure for the lucky few who are able to rediscover something once tarnished, brush off the dust, and spot a glittering diamond underneath.
So while it may take time to build up a true audience, Ana Lily Amirpour’s sophomore effort The Bad Batch seems tailor-made to one day arrive at genuine cult classic classification. Amirpour has constructed a gonzo post-apocalyptic drama that plays like the bastard love-child of Natural Born Killers and Southland Tales. If either of those films appeal to you, you’ll likely find something to cherish here. If those films turn you off completely, well…you might want to sit this one out.
In an undisclosed future time, those deemed to be inadequate or lesser beings are saddled with the “bad batch” classification, and set out into the desert somewhere beyond Texas — banished from society to fend for themselves. A sign at the border ominously warns “GOOD LUCK.” Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), attired in watermelon cut-off shorts and a ballcap sporting a middle finger, has recently been declared a “bad batch” and banished. She’s not in the desert very long before she’s captured by the cannibals who inhabit an area called The Bridge. Most of these cannibals are hulking bodybuilders who lift all day while listening to music from the 1990s, and then chow down on helpless humans at night. Arien loses an arm and a leg before she’s able to escape, rescued by a silent hermit (played by an unrecognizable Jim Carrey) and dropped-off at the seemingly more civilized “town” of Comfort.
Five months go by. Arien heals up and gets herself a prosthetic leg. And while life in Comfort is certainly more hospitable than captivity and eventually digestion at The Bridge, Arien is listless. She wanders back out into the desert and ends up picking up a stray child, bringing the little girl back with her to Comfort. As bad luck, or fate, would have it, the kid is the daughter of menacing cannibal Miami Man (Jason Momoa), causing Miami Man to leave The Bridge and come looking for her.
Amirpour builds up her hellscape with confidence, giving each character their own unique look as if they had stepped off the page of some obscure, ultra-violent comic book. Momoa, with his hulking physique adorned in tattoos, a meat cleaver sheathed at his side, oozes danger, and Waterhouse, with her prosthetic leg, dirty-blonde hair and perpetual tan comes across like the Valley Girl version of Mad Max: Fury Road’s Furiosa. Then there are the side characters, like Giovanni Ribisi playing a raving lunatic (what else?), the aforementioned Carrey as the mute hermit who has a knack for showing up at just the right time, and Diego Luna as Comfort’s resident DJ. Out of all these characters, however, one stands out the most: Keanu Reeves, playing the mysterious “The Dream”, the cult-like leader of Comfort. Reeves’s character is like a cross between Jim Jones and Pablo Escobar. The fact of the matter is Reeves seems to be the only performer here who knows what Amirpour wants, and he nails his smug, calm, possibly demented character with aplomb. Between his performance here and in The Neon Demon, this is a great year for Keanu Reeves playing creeps.
As good as Reeves is, and as stylish and visually realized as The Bad Batch may be, there’s a disappointing lack of substance beneath the surface. Amirpour, who directed the spectacular A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, has fallen into a sophomore slump here. At 115 minutes, the film drags when it would be better served by more manic energy. Earlier in this review I referenced Southland Tales and Natural Born Killers, the films The Bad Batch is most indebted to. Whatever you think of those films — and make no mistake, they’re both very flawed — they at least had the foresight to keep throwing batshit ideas at you up until the credits rolled. With The Bad Batch, everything runs out of steam once the world-building stops. One gets the sense that the filmmaker had a great setting for a story, but no story to go with it. The Bad Batch will no doubt find an audience one day that appreciates its abnormal charms, but it would’ve been nice if this film hadn’t ended up being all sizzle and no human-steak.
The Bad Batch is playing at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.