By Josiah Wampfler
“What does it all mean?” is one of the most commonly asked questions in film discussion.
We are always searching for the answer, probably for the same reasons we are constantly searching for the meaning of life. We want to ascribe meaning of some kind to every action, word or moment. And many times there is meaning. Many times there is a message or theme. But sometimes, it is not so easily reached or maybe not the point of it at all.
The Bad Batch, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, is the newest example of this. When Amirpour came on the scene with A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, she turned heads in a major way. She had a visual style that was strikingly unique, her characters were unlike any others and she had essentially created her very own genre. With The Bad Batch, Amirpour has shown us that she doesn’t even fit within the unique box that people had created for her after her first film. Neither the plot of the film, nor an overall theme or message can be easily summed up in a couple of sentences. Instead, the film opts for several messages and themes that run throughout the film, some of them almost contradictory and few of them obvious. Like its setting, The Bad Batch is a chaotic amalgam of different ideas and there are no easy answers. As one of the film’s characters says at one point, “No one is going to tell you. You have to find out for yourself.”
Right from the start of the film, that sentiment is quite clear. Our main character, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), is being processed as “Bad Batch” (Outlaw/Undesirable) by what seems to be this reality’s immigration enforcement. She is given a tattoo with a number and dropped south of the Texas border fence. Displaced from her home for reasons unknown, she must try to survive the punishing desert with nothing but a crop top, watermelon shorts and a backpack. This begins an almost 19 minute sequence with basically no dialogue in which the acting prowess of Waterhouse is put to full use and the film confidently and unequivocally tells us that we need to pay attention because the answers will not come easily.
As Arlen wanders the desert, she quickly discovers an even greater threat to her survival than the harsh desert: cannibals. After being captured by two people in a golf cart and knocked unconscious she wakes up to find herself chained to the ground in an encampment made from plane wreckage. Then, in a scene reminiscent of Reservoir Dogs, a woman brutally chops off Arlen’s arm and leg to the sound of Ace of Base. Arlen manages to escape with her life and find the town of Comfort, but now she must learn how to survive with this new handicap.
The Bad Batch is a film that won’t work for a lot of people (and it currently isn’t). It moves along at a snail’s pace for much of the film, there is little dialogue, its subject matter is disturbing, most of its characters do morally reprehensible things and it is just fucking weird as shit. Yet, it is one of the most visually stunning films I have seen, the performances are wonderful, the incredible sound design fills the gaps of no dialogue beautifully, it has a wholly unique and bizarrely perfect soundtrack and it is eminently re-watchable as there is so much to pick apart. Days after watching it, I can’t stop thinking about it.
In the barren wasteland of The Bad Batch, morality is as foreign a concept as rain. Even when people aren’t literally eating each other, they are cannibalizing each other in other ways. While Arlen is able to find temporary relief in the town of Comfort, she soon finds that the town’s benevolent leader, The Dream (Keanu Reaves being his best Keanu Reaves), is more Jim Jones than Ghandi. While he has protected his townspeople from the violence of the cannibals, he is inflicting violence on them in other ways by keeping them in poverty and strung out on drugs while he basks in riches.
The world of The Bad Batch is exactly as its title implies. Violence, brutality and selfishness are not vices in this world, but survival skills. Even Arlen is not the morally upright protagonist we may expect. Overcome by her hatred of the cannibals, she becomes as monstrous as them at one crucial turning point in the film. Her actions are savage and they threaten to turn us against her, but Amirpour does the impossible and manages to keep us behind her, even while acknowledging her wrongdoings.
Amirpour also shows this skill of bringing out small moments of light amidst the darkness in the relationship between Arlen and Miami Man (Jason Momoa), a burly cannibal searching for his daughter. The stoic, artistic Miami Man is a bit hard to read at times – which is nothing against Momoa because he is incredible in the part – yet despite this, and despite the underlying tension of why they even meet in the first place, Amirpour manages to show us fleeting moments of romantic tension between the two. We don’t know if they will actually end up together or if there is any genuine feelings there, but there is an animal magnetism between them that is beautiful. It is one of the few spots of true beauty among all the violence and chaos.
I think that is what I found so impressive about The Bad Batch: The further it descends into the darkness and brutality of this world, the more we can feel the beauty and love that is still there. If there is one simple theme that can be encapsulated in one sentence, it may be something Amirpour said during a Q&A for the film. Speaking about America, she said that something you love doesn’t always have to be perfect.
The world that these characters inhabit is far from ideal. The characters themselves are far from perfect. There is so much pain and darkness in this film. Yet, in the end, the film and these characters manage to find love and beauty in it all. It is an incredibly powerful sentiment and it is one of the reasons I loved The Bad Batch so much.