Ana Lily Amirpour’s comic post-apocalyptic action-drama offers little explanation of what exactly its “bad batch” is, or how the members of its motley, unfortunate tribe of humans wound up banished to a desert wasteland. Instead, Amirpour lets her camera linger on a sign warning that everything beyond a 10-foot-high metal fence is no longer the concern of the United States, while Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), a young woman in watermelon-print short-shorts, gazes at a note that some prison guards have given her. “Find Comfort,” it says. But nothing in this harsh terrain even remotely suggests comfortable.
Amirpour’s instinct is to let her scenes speak for themselves. The Bad Batch needs no lengthy setup because its premise is already vivid in our collective imaginations — it’s the waking nightmare of what America could become, a worst-case scenario in which all the president’s promises have been fulfilled, and undesirables are banished to godforsaken places ravaged by climate change and climbing temperatures. Somehow, Amirpour’s film is also funny.
Arlen is almost immediately kidnapped by a band of survivalist, bodybuilding cannibals. A slow-motion shot follows a man’s muscular, Speedo-clad butt through a Crossfit jungle gym inhabited by sun-baked gladiators and their downtrodden, limbless human feasts. Arlen loses a lower leg and an arm that first day, but she’s a crafty survivor and escapes the camp. A homeless wanderer (Jim Carrey) delivers her to the makeshift town of Comfort.
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The place is a dusty strip of outdoor “businesses.” An exotic dancer lazily grinds on a pole attached to a little pedestal, while people pass out on decrepit Barcaloungers, and the noodle-stand lady shoos away roving packs of skateboarders. It’s Burning Man for beggars. The town lunatic cries out that everyone needs to find his or her “one thing” to care about more than anything else, and Arlen is taken by his words. “What’s the one thing?” she asks. But, eh, who the hell knows? A quick and brutally emotional moment when Arlen tries on replacement arms suggests what her one thing is. But a chance encounter with mother-daughter cannibals at a dump site deepens the story.
Arlen kills the mother to avenge her lost limbs but saves the daughter, bringing her to Comfort. Meanwhile, the girl’s father, Miami Man (Jason Momoa) — named for the tattoo across his chest — comes looking for his lost little girl, whom Arlen has lost after an LSD trip gone awry. A cult leader (Keanu Reeves) guarded by pregnant, gun-toting women in shirts reading “The Dream Is Inside Me” has taken the girl for his growing harem.
Sound like a complicated mouthful? It is. But no matter how confounding the story gets, details and humor ground the narrative, and a simple guiding premise about the importance of human connection and artistic expression fills in the blanks. Arlen and Miami Man may be enemies in this world, but they’re the only people who actually care about anyone or anything. It’s a rare depiction of mutual, platonic love — or something like it, at least.
Despite the star power involved in this project, there’s something wonderfully lo-fi about all of it. Amirpour’s inventive, less-is-more aesthetic shows up the usual CGI wastelands. She also doesn’t seem to give a shit about exposition, that habit of explaining every premise to death. As in her debut, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, she lets the pictures do her talking.