There’s little in the way of setup or explanation for what the “bad batch” is or how the members of such a motley, unfortunate tribe of humans were banished to a desert wasteland in Ana Lily Amirpour’s postapocalyptic action dramedy. Instead, Amirpour just lets the 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 a young woman, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), in watermelon-print short-shorts gazes at a note some prison guards gave her. It reads “Find Comfort,” but nothing in this harsh terrain even remotely says comfortable.
Amirpour’s instincts to let the scene speak for itself are right. No lengthy setup is necessary, because The Bad Batch's premise is already vivid in our collective imagination — it’s the waking nightmare of a Trump presidency, a worst-case scenario where all his promises have been fulfilled, where undesirables are banished to godforsaken places ravaged by climate change. And yet it’s also funny.
Amirpour’s first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is black-and-white, barren of dialogue and heavy on poetic images — the vampire girl’s hijab does kind of look like batwings when she rides her skateboard. Amirpour’s sophomore effort also is visually striking, only with a wash of saturated colors and an amazing pair of bright yellow jean shorts with a winking smiley emblazoned on one cheek.
Almost immediately, Arlen gets 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 arm that first day, but she’s a crafty survivor and escapes the camp, and a homeless wanderer (Jim Carrey) delivers her to the makeshift town of Comfort.
The town 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 local lunatic cries out that everyone needs to find their “one thing” to care about more than anything else, and Arlen’s the only one taken by his words. “What’s the one thing?” she asks. But, eh, who the hell knows? A quick and brutally emotional moment in which Arlen tries on replacement arms — by cutting out photos and taping them to a mirror so she can adjust her body in the reflection and pretend she has an appendage — suggests the one thing is that missing arm of hers. But a chance encounter with mother-and-daughter cannibals at a dump site deepens the story.
Arlen kills the mother to avenge her lost limbs, but she saves the daughter and brings her to Comfort. Meanwhile, the girl’s father, Miami Man (Jason Momoa) — named for the words tattooed across his chest — comes looking for his lost little girl. Problem is, Arlen’s just lost herself after an LSD trip gone awry in which a cult leader (Keanu Reeves) guarded by pregnant, gun-toting women in shirts reading “The Dream Is Inside Me” steals her for his harem. Sound like a complicated mouthful? It is. But no matter how strange or confusing the story gets, details and humor ground the narrative, with the blanks filled in by a simple guiding premise about the importance of human connection and artistic expression. Arlen and Miami Man might be enemies in this world, but their common denominator is that they’re the only damn people who actually care about anyone or anything. It becomes a rare depiction of mutual, platonic love, or something like it, at least.
This insular, minimalist, alternate-reality production design, the satirical humor and even the addition of a burdensome kid are more than a little reminiscent of ’90s indie cult classic Six String Samurai, which I hadn’t thought about since I sold my VHS copy on eBay 10 years ago. Despite the star power involved in this project, there’s something wonderfully lo-fi about all of it, an inventive, less-is-more aesthetic not often seen in postapocalypse films. But Amirpour doesn’t seem to give a shit about “believability” or explaining every premise to death; she lets the pretty pictures do her talking for her.