, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Some films have such an impossibly fascinating premise that they demand your attention: writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014), was one of those films. Billed as “the first Iranian vampire film,” this gorgeous, black-and-white homage to everything from John Hughes to Roman Polanski more than lived up to the premise, showcasing a fresh, exciting new voice that promised a truly fascinating career.

For her follow-up, The Bad Batch (2017), Amirpour moves the action from Iran to the badlands of west Texas, hammering down harder on the spaghetti-Western leanings of her debut to craft something that is far more visceral but no less gauzy, in its own way. One thing remains abundantly clear, however: Ana Lily Amirpour is an amazing filmmaker whose craft continues to impress at each new turn.

We find ourselves in a world that’s recognizably ours, yet smeared with a heavy coating of grease and grime: think early Mad Max, pre-Fury Road. “Undesirables” are processed through some vague penal system, dubbed the Bad Batch, tattooed with an identifying number and tossed out into the unforgiving, scorched Texas badlands. Your choices, at that point, are pretty slim: you can try to get to the frontier town of Comfort, led by smarmy New Age guru/Ibiza part host The Dream (Keanu Reeves and one seriously choice mustache) or you can try to avoid being dinner for the roving cannibals known as Bridgers, while surviving on whatever you can eke out of the cracked earth.

Arlen May Johnson (Suki Waterhouse), as it turns out, opts for more of an “all of the above” approach. She gets captured by cannibals, loses an arm and a leg, escapes and makes it to Comfort, only to realize that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. One day, while target shooting in the wastelands outside the town’s walls, Arlen comes upon a pair of cannibals, a mother and daughter, and makes the fateful choice that will put her into direct contact with the formidable Miami Man (Jason Momoa). Arlen will come to learn that when you’re already on the fringes of society, questions of “right” and “wrong” don’t mean much and that people with the least often have the most to lose.

To get the gushing praise out-of-the-way: I really loved The Bad Batch, part and parcel. I’m more than willing to admit that the film isn’t perfect, mind you, but the sheer level of invention on display here should more than gloss over some narrative wheel-spinning or any nitpicking. We need more filmmakers taking risks and this, if nothing else, is one helluva risky film.

Risky, you say? Let’s see…you have a gritty, revenge-oriented, spaghetti-Western, complete with all the stock characters and trappings you would expect. You also, of course, have a Mad Max-style, post-apocalyptic film where people live in junkyards and a messianic guru holds court from atop a giant, neon boom box. Let’s not forget what could arguably be called a traditional, ’50s teen romance where kids from the wrong side of the tracks somehow find true love. Oh, yeah: it’s also got elements straight out of The Hills Have Eyes. Easy sell, right?

As with her debut, however, Amirpour is a natural when it comes to taking all these disparate elements and blending them into a completely organic, believable whole. Although the scale is certainly smaller, The Bad Batch definitely evokes some of the wonder of the Fury Road world: with its cannibalistic body builders, DJ-led cults, baroque prison system and dystopian wastelands, it’s not hard to place this in the same, general universe. I left the film wanting to know more about its world and denizens, always the biggest compliment I can pay any film, especially a stand-alone movie.

From a craft standpoint, The Bad Batch looks and sounds phenomenal. The cinematography, courtesy of Lyle Vincent (who also shot A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night), is simply gorgeous, full of rich wide shots and eye-popping, vibrant colors. The score and sound design make excellent use of songs to highlight scenes, in much the same way as AGWHAAN did, but puts a greater emphasis on sparse arrangements: for much of the film, there’s no score at all and it’s a powerful, well-executed choice.

For her cast, Amirpour collected a pretty diverse group of performers and manages to make the choices look like anything but stunt casting. Suki Waterhouse, equally great in last year’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, is simply superb as Arlen, turning in the kind of kickass turn that would make spiritual forebears like Clint Eastwood proud. Equally great is Jason Momoa, giving us the kind of tragic character that would be exceedingly hard to pull off with so little (largely garbled) dialogue, let alone as a violent cannibal. Keanu Reeves, continuing his latter-day trend of quirky roles, brings the proper amount of genuine pathos and complete sleaze to his cult/town leader role and is never less than magnetic when he’s on-screen.

To that core trio, let’s add a roster that includes: the always incredible Yolonda Ross as Miami Man’s wife, Maria; Jayda Fink, doing a fair amount of heavy-lifting in only her second performance, as the little girl; Jim Carrey, doing some of the best acting of his life, in a completely silent role (and I’m not being snarky, in the slightest); and Giovanni Ribisi, as a possibly prophetic madman. It’s a cast that looks odd, on paper, but plays together beautifully. In a film with plenty of sublime joys, the acting is certainly one of the foremost ones.

When all is said and done, The Bad Batch is an incredibly smart, self-assured experience. The film is about many things – one need only look at the marked contrast between the serious, family-oriented cannibals and the party-hardy, hedonistic townies to know that Amirpour has a few things to say about a few different subjects. From a purely cinematic viewpoint, however, she’s created a completely immersive experience and, as an avid cinephile, that’s something I just don’t get enough.

From the first spoken words, as the Bad Batch are processed, to that final, amazing campfire shot, Amirpour’s sophomore film holds your attention like a bear trap. It’s not always an easy film (shit gets hacked off and there will be blood) but there’s a genuine beauty to the ugliness and grime that’s undeniable. As someone who grew up on films like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, I appreciate that glorious combination of the panoramic shot and the gut shot…the decision of the individual to shrug, say “the hell with it,” and wade back into hell just because…the way that death is an ever-present given but life and love still manage to carve their own paths through the wilderness.

The Bad Batch might not be a perfect film but I’ll be damned if I didn’t feel close to perfect on at least a dozen times while watching it. That’s just about all I need to know, friends and neighbors.