There are movies that are not good, there are movies that are bad, and then are movies that are gross. Bad movies are common, but gross movies are few and far between. The last gross movie I saw was the Salma Hayek torture porn debacle Everly, two and a half years ago. My gross-free streak ended this week with The Bad Batch, the sophomore effort of writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour, following her rather spectacular debut A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. That movie is so good, so clear in its vision and strong in its voice, that it is very difficult to accept the same person made both it and The Bad Batch. But she did. She made both of these movies. It boggles the mind.
Suki Waterhouse stars as Arlen, who is cast into a border hinterland because she’s “bad batch” and no longer welcome in the United States proper. What “bad batch” means is never clearly defined, but it seems to be someone who, for whatever reason, doesn’t fit into society. (Presumably, the world is now some kind of vaguely evil “utopia” as seen in any YA futuristic YA novel.) Arlen is swiftly beset by cannibals, who hack her arm and leg off for dinner.
At first it seems like The Bad Batch might have a grindhouse thing going for it. With A Girl, Amirpour showed a knack for combining genres—in that case, noir, spaghetti Western, and vampire flick—so maybe the The Bad Batch is going to be an apocalyptic grindhouse thing, like Mad Max meets Death Proof. Well…no. Because after Arlen’s escape from the cannibals, she never has any agency again.
The Bad Batch has a Baby Driver problem in that Waterhouse is not magnetic enough to command the screen for an entire film which is mostly dedicated to extreme close-ups and wide landscape shots. But unlike Ansel Elgort, who gets buried alive by his co-stars in Baby Driver, Waterhouse is paired with Jason Momoa, who can be a commanding presence but isn’t here. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like Momoa knows what he’s doing or why in any given scene, and he has the most outrageously bad accent—I laughed out loud when it was determined to be Cuban—that his performance qualifies for the Total Disaster Hall of Fame. Waterhouse struggles equally with a bad Texan accent, and both their performances belong in different movies.
But then Keanu Reeves turns up as a cult leader called The Dream and you think maybe The Bad Batch will get on track, but it doesn’t. Reeves did a better job playing a creep in The Neon Demon—which, coincidentally, also does a better job of using exploitation tropes to comment on society—and again, here is an actor who seems stranded. Reeves can be effective in the right circumstances, but The Bad Batch is not the right circumstance. Frankly, I’d rather see what happens if Reeves and Jim Carrey—barely recognizable as a wandering hobo—switched roles. Carrey probably could have found a new level as The Dream. (For the record, Diego Luna has a completely worthless cameo as The Dream’s DJ.)
Exploitation, giallo, and post-apocalyptic body horror can probably, in a different, better, movie, be combined effectively. But Amirpour, who showed such confidence in her debut and had such command of her disparate influences, seems just as lost as her actors. It’s like everyone is trying to make a different movie, and Amirpour is trying to make three different movies at once, and none of it works. And worse, The Bad Batch isn’t just a broken-down experiment, it’s an actively offensive and gross exploitation flick that borders on snuff film.
Arlen is a protagonist without drive, who is victimized in the most awful way for what ends up being mere kicks. We’re put through the wringer along with Arlen and then there’s no catharsis. It’s not about winning or good vs. evil, it’s just about giving your protagonist an arc, giving her something, ANYTHING to do that isn’t latching onto the first big strong dude she meets. Really, if you want to see an artsy-trashy film that mines sub-genres like exploitation and body horror—and makes good use of Keanu Reeves—to comment on female victimization and empowerment, just watch The Neon Demon. It still might not be your thing, but it will DEFINITELY be better than The Bad Batch.