Say what you want about The Bad Batch, but you can’t deny that it’s distinctive. As she did in her 2014 debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, director Ana Lily Amirpour builds an immersive world, this one with an offbeat look best described as “’90s trash raver,” full of colorful late 20th-century castoffs strewn across the deserts of inland California. (Speaking of the ’90s, a practically unrecognizable Jim Carrey even makes an appearance as a sunburnt drifter.) Its aesthetic is so current that it’s oddly ahead of its time, and it’s easy to imagine stoners in the year 2035—or whenever ’10s nostalgia comes around—admiring the film in between hits on their 3-D-printed bongs.
Trouble is, it’s still 2017, and although our culture keeps getting more intensely ironic all the time, we’re not quite yet to the point where this level of artifice is easily digestible. That is to say, while Amirpour has put a lot of effort into creating sweeping desert photography and detailed thrift-store set dressing, those are ultimately just ornaments on a sparse narrative tree. Clocking in at nearly two hours long, the film contains virtually no dialogue for its first 19 minutes, and long periods of silence after that. And in those moments, it reaches for, and occasionally nearly achieves, something sublime. It’s when the characters open their mouths that things start to go sideways.
Suki Waterhouse stars as Arlen, a woman whose only backstory is a half-baked Southern accent and who’s released into the desert after being declared an undesirable—part of the “bad batch” of the title—by a vaguely defined government agency in a dystopian future-ish America. (Nitpickers beware: There’s a lot left unexplained in terms of how this system works.) Out in this giant human garbage dump, cannibals rule. And indeed, soon after her arrival, Arlen is kidnapped by one of these Texas Chainsaw Massacre-esque clans, her arm and leg chopped off for human BBQ. When the chef comes back for another limb, Arlen smacks her in the head with a cast iron skillet and escapes, her last act of real agency for the next hour or so of the film.
Arlen spends much of the movie drifting back and forth between a flea market-like oasis of pseudo-civilization called Comfort and the wastelands beyond, being picked up and thrown over a shoulder here and climbing on the back of a motorcycle there like a listless Mad Max. Comfort is ruled by a fertility-obsessed cult leader called The Dream (a smarmy, mustachioed Keanu Reeves), who makes public appearances flanked by heavily pregnant armed guards and whose motto is “you can’t enter the dream until the dream enters you.” So, yeah, he’s a creep. But he delivers his sermons from atop a giant neon boom box and gives his congregants free LSD, so he’s not all bad.
Meanwhile, out in the desert lives Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a sensitive cannibal with the soul of an artist who kills to feed his young daughter, Honey (Jayda Fink, channeling the feral child from The Road Warrior). Momoa is a natural at playing a wordless brute, but he also makes an attempt at a Cuban accent that’s so distracting that it derails much of what’s good about his performance. A good chunk of the film is devoted to the burgeoning romance between Arlen and Miami Man, a nice reversal of the typical male protagonist/female love interest dynamic. However, this also means dialogue scenes, with the emotional stakes undermined by the painful sight of two bad accents talking back and forth.
Amirpour is so deliberate in her world building—even the road signs in Comfort are altered to fit the scene—it’s a shame to see its magic dimmed by a thin storyline and misguided acting choices. If they are intentional, the stilted performances simply add another layer of ironic detachment on top of what’s already a very stylized world. It’s just not necessary. If they aren’t, they reveal a major blind spot in what is otherwise a visionary talent. Amirpour has an eye for striking imagery and excels at marrying the film’s eclectic soundtrack—Ace Of Base and Portland seven-piece Federale’s Western-tinged tribute to the giallo “All The Colors Of The Dark” both make notable appearances—with those images. Whether she can pull out a great performance from her actors, though, remains to be seen.