“Costs a lot to be here. Cost you an arm and a leg.”
The Bad Batch is a stellar movie to do drugs to.
Tattoo needles buzz before a gate opens, unleashing us into the desert with Arlen (Suki Waterhouse). A backpack-toting miscreant who’s been cast off from society, it doesn’t take long for us to feel the same south of the border sun that beats down on her face and shoulders, threatening to blister her skin. We’re woozy and nauseous, unsure of where to go, as there’s no true north in this wasteland. The terrain stretches on for miles into oblivion, ominous gusts of wind blowing sand flecks into the fresh ink that’s been chiseled behind our ear. That’s our Bad Batch serial code – a reminder that we’re no longer desirable by régime standards, so we may as well search for any sort of Comfort in this apocalyptic plane of nothingness.
If you’re smart, the drugs will be timed to start peaking past the movie’s twenty-minute mark, as the gut-churning violence Arlen endures before literally skating on toward Comfort is sure to disrupt your altered state of consciousness. Tied down with a sizzling grill in sight, some sort of sedative (heroin?) is injected into the girl’s arm before a crude saw burrows through an arm and a leg. This writer was not wise, having let the trip settle in before even pushing play on the picture. By this point, my own appendages tingled and burned, phantom agonies generated by filmic empathy. Even when Arlen bests her captor and begins propelling herself through the desert on a rolling plank, the absence of limbs lingered in my mind. This is the price you pay when entering a deregulated Hellscape. Survival of the fittest is not meant for those who don’t have their facilities dialed in to reality one hundred percent.
When I spoke with writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour at Fantastic Fest last year (following a significantly more sober viewing), the discussion turned to the early works of Alex Cox, which The Bad Batch still feels like a direct descendant of. Amirpour’s movie doesn’t so much follow a narrative (though there is a clearly defined sequence of consequential events) as it does a vibe – floating along on its own frequency like a prophetic alien transmission from our near future. Where Cox’s Los Angeles in Repo Man (’84) is a desolate metropolis – filled with deadbeats, burnouts, punks, the titular credit men, and a trunk filled with extraterrestrial power – Amirpour’s Mexican dead zone where those excluded by “normality” are discarded resembles a Spartan reimagining of Bartertown, and the forsaken stretches in-between. Or perhaps The Bad Batch is more along the lines of Walker (’87) – the acid trip revision of former self-declared president of Nicaragua, William Walker; only instead of decontextualizing the history books, Amirpour is reshaping our increasingly hopeless present. Anybody who isn’t pledging allegiance to our current rulers is deemed a threat to their throne, and are left to fend for themselves without any sort of healthcare or economic backbone on which to lean. The cracked earth is where we must build our own empires of dust, so grab whatever you can and start digging in.
These tiny kingdoms emerge from the ether, as Amirpour’s lack of defined geography is continuously disorienting. Miami Man (Jason Mamoa) is a warrior in his own private Idaho, watching as a crew of cis- and transgender bodybuilders pump iron in the yard, readying themselves like prisoners for whatever threat looms in the coming days. At night, he paints portraits of his little girl, Honey (Jayda Fink), before throwing on his headphones and heading out back to butcher the latest blonde-haired fly he’s caught and chained under an unsteady lean-to. Blasting Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon” (which is just one track of several the impressively hypnotic OST contains) through headphones on his stroll to the meat market, we get the sense that he’s psyching out the voices in his head telling him he shouldn’t do this. There must be another way to provide food for himself and his daughter outside of slaughtering another human being. Yet this is the positon the Bad Batch have been put in. Under any other circumstances (say, had the Cuban refugee been born into privilege of some sort), these actions wouldn’t be necessary. But Miami Man is here now, and he and Honey need to eat and live to see another day.
The cruelty of this gorgeous wasteland is indiscriminate, and this is where the influence of Spaghetti Westerns bleed into Amirpour’s wandering vision. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent (who also shot the auteur’s stellar Iranian vampire debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night [‘14]) uses the wide 2.35 frame to capture figures approaching like rancorous mirages, steadily making their way toward discovered vectors. Honey climbs piles of trash with her mother, Maria (Yolanda Ross), looking for anything of value to bring back home. When Arlen stumbles upon the two, she’s framed like a vengeful gunslinger – the Amputee With No Name. Vincent’s camera crouches behind her, so that Arlen’s bright yellow “Have a Nice Day” smiley face shorts are directly in our face like a thrift store update of Clint Eastwood’s dusty chaps. She kills the woman in front of her child, as Maria becomes a recipient of Arlen’s vengeance against the cannibalistic code which cost her an arm and a leg. The gunslinger may have persevered against her initial attacker, but she still requires her own pound of flesh, even if that means turning Honey into a lost, motherless daughter. This is no country for the merciful.
Comfort, as it turns out, is a place – a shanty town centered around its founder’s posh drug palace. The Dream (Keanu Reeves) is a Pablo Escobar-styled kingpin who’s created a narcocapitalist society which lights up every night, as he invites all to come enjoy a party. The revelers celebrate their “freakish” nature amongst likeminded individuals, chemicals pumping through their veins like neon-flavored fuel. This is the closest The Bad Batch ever gets to providing any sort of pecuniary structure in this pop apocalypse, as The Dream’s pregnant harem parade about with machine guns, each sporting a white T-Shirt with block letters that declare THE DREAM IS INSIDE OF ME. Tabs of acid are handed out at the soiree, and if Amirpour’s movie stumbles, it’s in trying to replicate this chemically shifted state. Arlen wanders away from Comfort and collapses in a fit of euphoria, her mind racing as the sky shifts and pulses radioactive blues and purples. It’s the only psychedelic moment that feels forced, as the rest of the movie is so steeped in organic eye-popping oddity that shoehorning the replication of a drug trip takes us out of The Bad Batch’s distinctly defined zone.
Miami Man’s search for Honey brings him upon Arlen, and when the two meet, Amirpour exploits the leaky sexual component of the psychedelic experience by implementing a leering lens upon Jason Mamoa’s chiseled body. While Miami Man is no doubt intimidating – his thousand yard stare looking through her as it scans the landscape for any sign of his seed – Arlen can’t help but be drawn to this smolderingly monolithic presence. Even as he threatens her by firelight, the flames jump and light his deep brown eyes, accenting the warmth found inside his hard exterior. When a dust storm kicks up, the two seek shelter under a sheet, their skin so close to touching as they exist like lovers under a thin bedcover. The Bad Batch is an undeniably sexy film – full of sweaty tension as we impatiently wait for these two enemies to strip down and explore one another’s bodies. The gravitational pull of physical attraction is what unites Miami Man and Arlen, a primal impulse between two human beings who’ve been reduced to animal instincts thanks to their shared punishing situation.
Cult films don’t exist anymore, at least not in the way this writer recalls them whilst experiencing his most formative years as a cineaste. The act of hunting down copies of motion pictures never released in the United States (think: Cannibal Holocaust [‘80] during the '90s, which is now available to stream in HD on certain services), or attending screenings of rare 35mm prints have been relegated to true believers who are few and far between. The modern cult movie is one not defined by scarcity, but rather uniqueness of vision, existing on a wavelength only a select group will tune into. Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales (’06) comes to mind – a sprawling, bizarre work of artistic expression that’s unwieldly and flawed, but can be admired because of these qualities as well. The Bad Batch is similar to that future shock – a mind-bending spiritual journey to the center of our world’s dark soul. It’s a trip many will reject, as The Dream pontificates about pigs and cows standing in their own shit as a primary metaphor for what separates humans from animals. There’s a sophomoric tilt to its philosophical ponderings, readymade for a cloud of weed smoke or a fistful of mushrooms. But those of us who do dial in with Amirpour’s outlandish fantasy will build our own desert families, letting night fall around us as we try to comprehend the casual brutality of our universe.
The Bad Batch is available now to stream, and is showing in select theaters across the country.