One of my absolute favorite indie films of the past five years is Ana Lily Amirpour’s stylish vampire-noir, A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It tells a subdued, atmospheric tale of romance and horror while approaching genre conventions with a feminist take, all the while treating its viewers with striking visuals and an unforgettable soundtrack. It’s a film I love, and a debut that presented Amirpour as a visionary in the indie filmmaking scene; the film garnering an almost exclusively positive reaction from the larger film community including critics and fans alike.
Although Girl is her debut film, Amirpour’s expert work on the film gives the impression that she’s a veteran filmmaker; the film is just that impressively well-realized and notable. Which is why it’s surprising that her new film, The Bad Batch, comes off as amateurish by comparison. Amirpour serves as both the film’s writer and director (as she did on her first feature), and while her incredible aural and visual sensibilities translate over from Girl, it’s her writing that stumbles, lacking meaningful character development or a storyline worth investing in.
The Bad Batch follows Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) — and I don’t know whether this is due to my lack of interest in her character, or because I missed the opening 15 minutes of the film — but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what her name was without having the film’s Wikipedia page opened in another tab. From what I could gather, Arlen lives in a dystopian America where all deplorables are exiled from the rest of the country and constrained to living in the desert with little to no provisions. At the outset, Arlen is kidnapped by a tribe of cannibals (led by The Miami Man, played by Jason Momoa), and while she does ultimately escape within the first 15 minutes of the film (this is when I walked in on the screening), the group has already mutilated an arm and leg for sustenance.
What could have turned into a fun, if not entirely clichéd exploitative revenge-thriller, instead becomes an undercooked, overly long slog through a desertous, almost other-worldly wasteland as Arlen attempts at finding herself. We meet a cast of degenerates along the way, including The Hermit (Jim Carrey), The Dream (Keanu Reeves), and other less memorable “characters” (if you can call them that). The more interesting parts of the film come from Carrey and Reeves, who truly capture the few scenes they’re in, even though Carrey never speaks and Reeves is confined to only a couple of monologues (which are especially good pieces).
But elsewhere within the film’s tenuous throughline is a lot of nothing, as Arlen cannot seem to make up her mind on what she wants. In one scene she’s ready to execute The Miami Man, citing him as “evil,” but the next she’s holding him close in a loving embrace, seemingly ready to do whatever it takes to find his recently missing daughter (whom she just kidnapped). It’s hard to pinpoint what drives her character, leaving me to quickly lose interest in her story and leading me to hope that the focus would in turn be pointed at some of the weirder side characters…but this never comes to fruition. With very little else to grasp onto outside of Arlen’s thinly written narrative, the film really begins to drag all the way until its unsatisfactory ending.
Amirpour seems disinclined to present a coherent story, or characters whose actions make sense or carry substantial meaning. Instead, more attention goes toward building the film’s interesting, oddball world, which is beautifully captured by DP Lyle Vincent (who also shot Girl). There’s some great visuals here, and they’re usually soundtracked with similarly strong music choices. But still, none of the scenes here are nearly as awe-inspiring as even the least memorable parts of Girl, let alone those that cemented that film as one of my favorites this decade.
It’s hard not to continue going back to comparing The Bad Batch and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, as Amirpour is clearly attempting to capture the same magic as she had with her first film, down to even featuring another track by English band White Lies (their song “Death” featured prominently in one of Girl’s best scenes). But whereas A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night succeeds in almost every aspect, The Bad Batch is only capable of recapturing a fraction of the magic, and it’s nowhere near enough to keep it from being an immense disappointment.
2 stars out of 5
— Michael Lane, Blog Editor