The body has become a vogue subject for discourse in contemporary cinema and it's easy to see why. Horror movies have become high/low cultural catnip and what's more horrifying than something freaky happening to your body? More to the point, as we all try to become more politely woke, why agonize over reading bell hooks or deciphering Claudia Rankine if you can just watch Jordan Peele's perfectly enjoyable Get Out?
Ana Lily Amirpour's The Bad Batch, on the other hand, is challenging stuff. If her debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was a pleasing hour and a half of Lynchian dressing over a vampire movie, relief to all critics who enjoyed bemoaning Twilight, than The Bad Batch repels its fawning audience with a collection of things most people don't like: music festivals in the desert, poor white people shooting people of color, Die Antwoord. Her mode of exploration exchanges the surreal gauze of Lynch for the polarizing trashbin of Harmony Korine. It is all, every last brutal, gorgeous second of the movie's two hour run time, worth it.
The Bad Batch takes place in a geographical territory of the same name; a region that sits, we are briefly told in the movie's beginning, somewhere adjacent to Texas. It was filmed in and around Palm Desert, a town that sits inside the Coachella Valley, most well-known for the music festival that bears its name. The movie, however, is a capital of outcast outsiders, not cultural insiders. They are forced there--to some extent, the region functions as John Carpenter's New York, a place for society to dump undesirables. Amirpour focuses her gaze on two of them: a damsel in white trash, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), and an imposing body builder who is identified, in the credits, by the tattoo he wears on his chest: Miami Man (Jason Momoa, Game of Thrones). We begin with Arlen: she is dumped in the arid region and immediately discovered by a gang of bodybuilding Die Antwoord-enjoying cannibals who live around the ruins of an aircraft and think her limbs look just delish. They cut off two of them and slap 'em on the fryer before she kills one of them with a handy pipe lying around and skives off.
Suki Waterhouse as Arlen (Neon)
Mr. Miami Man, on the other hand, has been around Bad Batch longer and developed a successful career as an artist and some family ties inside the cannibal community: a girlfriend (Yolonda Ross) and a kid (Jayda Fink). They keep their own trashy woman chained up and Amirpour lets us watch as he diligently makes her into dinner for the fam. Miami Man and Arlen have their first run in when Arlen, clinging onto a prosthetic leg given to her by the kind folks at a nearby anti-cannibal community called Comfort and ruled by a flapjack fascist named the Dream (Keanu Reeves with a villainous handlebar moustache), runs into Miami Man's girlfriend and child scavenging for better silverware at the nearby dump. Arlen kills her. The kid follows her along and, feeling guilty, she lackadaisically adopts him. Soon after, at one of the Dream's LSD-fueled raves, she loses the kid and, after wandering away in the desert in a scene that reminded me of the time Homer Simpson saw a coyote after tripping out on some bad chili, runs into Miami Man, who is looking for the family that Arlen displaced. They pair up. Such, as it were, is the tale.
It's a tale that has, to some extent, revealed itself as polarizing among critics, despite being not incredibly different than, say, every single Star Wars movie ever. The RT consensus, for instance, reads: "The Bad Batch has its moments, but it's too thinly written and self-indulgent to justify its length or compensate for its slow narrative drift." This is, of course, bald-faced nonsense. Amirpour is, admittedly, not incredibly interested in the pithy, braggadocio chatter that fills cheaply made indie trash and the so-called 'smart' superhero movies that are modeled after them (Deadpool, Guardians of the Galaxy). Chasms of the movie, like its first twenty minutes, are silent of much discernable conversation. The movie's most obvious hero, who has nothing at all to do with its central plot, is a mute wanderer played by a Jim Carrey who looks as Howard Hughes-crazy as I've always imagined him to be, the twinkle in his eye ravaged by years of hiding. He appears as the movie's moral compass, saving both Arlen and Miami Man from the brink of death and answering their questions with riddles from his shopping cart. The magical homeless fellow is cliché close to its cousin but Amirpour smartly trusts it to a master of facial plasticity who remains one of the few actors living that can evoke sympathy but resist nauseous pity.
Jim Carrey in "The Bad Batch"(Neon)
An emotional exchange that's at the heart of Amirpour's film, do we feel sorry for these trashy criminals or think they've gotten their just deserts? In an interview, Amirpour elucidated on Arlen's background, which is unrevealed in the film: a criminal case based on some eighteen-year-old high school drop-out turned hooker who got the life sentence for killing a john. Miami Man, on the other hand, is an illegal immigrant; victim of a system to some, law-bending rascal to the millions who voted Trump on election day. Prison programming has historically tended to focus on sympathetic heroes, who plead innocence (The Shawshank Redemption) or whose criminal paths are ruthlessly squeezed for the empathy inside (Orange is the New Black). Amirpour is uninterested in this dialogue, in the general contemplation of the past that wears down much of today's entertainment.
Instead, the movie's dialogue is interested in what is happening now; in ceaseless interviews, Amirpour insists that her film is not post- apocalyptic, which is to say, occurring after some great calamity but happens contemporaneously. All the trash gathered in Bad Batch is everyday stuff you threw out yesterday, no futuristic gizmos. Also present is the movie's instances of racialized violence, the subject of some far-more interesting criticism. Arlen, with her lilting bad accent and ignorance of basic North American geography is a representative of the kind of redneck currently being studied by today's pop academics and journalists in our attempt to understand the Trump voters of the countryside—J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy and Nancy Isenberg's White Trash have joined the woke table at many an urban bookstore. Instead of being 200 pages, Amirpour cuts this thesis down: "I hate y'all," Arlen tells Miami Men while holding a knife up to his bronzen chest. Who do you think she voted for?
But Arlen doesn't, fundamentally know why she hates Miami Man, even though her colleagues in Comfort do. His 'people,' so to speak, chewed two of her limbs off but even that feels like a part of a distant past by the time they march off in the sunset together. She is repelled, instead, by the parody of capitalism operated by Keanu Reeves's character; its post-hippie stuff that demands possession of the body in exchange for sex and drugs, "You can't enter the dream until the dream enters you," reads a t-shirt slogan that is both creepy and smartly aware of what everyone tells you music festivals are like. When she leaves it behind, briefly, we do too. It's cleansing stuff.
'The Bad Batch' is out in theaters now.
Andrew Karpan reviews movies so you don't have to, among other things. Follow him on Twitter.