A toxic swirl of competing and conflicting energies and moods, The Bad Batch relishes both a freakish, convulsing elan and a border-town’s sense of dispossessed, out-of-the-way melancholy. It definitely carries a streak of hot-tempered punk aggression and rambunctiousness. But the energy is tempered with the ethereal disposition of punk’s younger, more reptilian late-‘80s-alt cousin, Alt-Goth, which was the prevailing ethos of Amirpour’s first film, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and which carries its own attitude of vaguely stoned, quasi-psychedelic, chilled-down depression. The Bad Batch has a feminist spirit – more riot grrl than Gloria Steinem – but also a lean, mean musculature, parts of which Sam Fuller or Anthony Mann might have directed. It defies reasonable meaning at almost all turns, but its dyspeptic drone is palpable and feels thematically united in its exploration of the pushed around, both the people and the films of the furthest corners of the world where rules are guidelines and communities are tenuous and volatile. It is flawed, deeply so, and, at times, its poetic brand of outsider melancholy can become less of a mood proper and more of an affectation or, at worst, a fixation Amirpour just can’t quit. But the film’s iconoclastic zest is undeniable.
Somehow both spartan and maximalist in aesthetic, The Bad Batch is nothing if not a sensualist, but its senses are many. It has the wandering, cast-adrift quality of a young soul looking for inspiration without necessarily being content anywhere it winds up. Which says as much about Amirpour as her new film. She aspires to be a rogueish sort, an anti-institutional and counter-establishment renegade, and she seems to abhor the fixedness and singularity of a totalized, neat, buttoned-up aesthetic. Fittingly, The Bad Batch is told more as a mixtape of references, moments, and glances than a cohesive unit, but that essential lack of a binding agent keeps the film humming along with egg-beaten, subversive energy as it transgresses the borders of genre, gender, and style alike.
Thus, The Bad Batch exhibits a makeshift zest, hewn together – loosely, with an eye for exploiting the breakages between styles – out of discarded parts and pieces from exploitation films of all temperatures, although Alejandro Jodorowsky is probably the most consistent and venerable source of manna here. But The Bad Batch has a little more than simple reference on the mind. It’s a bad egg of a film, scavenging disheveled lunacy and transitory ambitions, hopping from community to community, but also influence to influence. But in repurposing old, forgotten film styles, Amirpour suggests not only an elegy to the fringe-dwellers of the world and the outcasts of the cinematic canon but a slightly hallucinogenic dip into a pool of cinema that resists dictums of logic, perfection, reason, and social propriety.
A dip which, admittedly, isn’t always to the film’s best interests, although I have to admit that I admire its shaggy-dog, hang-out-at-the-end-of-the-world vibe, as though the film were endlessly being graffiti’d onto the walls of a skate-park rather than recited at a lecture hall. But the elegy to the missing, the miscreants, and the marginalized plays better as an abstraction than an allegory. When questions of the real world enter play – which I am often resistant to, but which the film insists on with its freighted signifiers – things get a bit thorny, and Amirpour’s attitudes reveal themselves to be more playful than assured.
The whole film begins with a lone wander played by Suki Waterhouse (white) being cast out into a vaguely Southwestern, border-between-nations desert where she runs afoul of an ethnic rainbow coalition of cannibals and, eventually, a somewhat pastier community of ravers lead by a man known only as The Dream. Outside what we presume is a US-sanctioned safe zone for the acceptable types of the world, freedom reigns and the outcasts struggle and play alike, all people designated as undesirable by the US and excised from the moral domesticity of our nation. But Amirpour is uncertain whether the mélange of styles, peoples, and oppressions outside the wall – where cannibalism, theft, and murder reigns – is the result of these undesirables being subjected to horrid conditions or whether it emanates from an innate and inescapable immorality lying within them.
The latter implication is quietly horrifying, and I’m not sure this Iranian filmmaker who considers herself a feminist wants to suggest that the US is correct in quelling dissenters and Others by throwing them out on the other side of a Trumpian bulwark. But the concerns are only exacerbated by the film’s vaguely queasy racial politics, about which much blood has been spilled. Amirpour does preserve the possibility of genuine affectation and interracial love by the end – reveling in families of many shapes, sizes, and varieties – but there’s a white-washed pall cast over the whole phalanx of races, styles, and aesthetics because of an early murder committed by a white woman upon a black woman, a murder which Amirpour does not seem to suggest a moral mapping for. Perhaps she isn’t interested in a perspective on the murder, but all films are loaded with biases by virtue of the biases their audiences bring to them, and how an audience might take the dominant thrust of her narrative is something Amirpour seems to be disinclined to consider.
It might be the case that the politics of the film are indecipherable because Amirpour is more interested in the fever-dream aesthetic-playground, and if so, her debut film was both more confident and more meaningfully abstracted from reality to its benefit. The Bad Batch feels more interested in dancing on the graves of the political signifiers that it subverts than in using them to any particular purpose, which perhaps marks Amirpour as a filmmaker both for whom nothing is sacrosanct and one who surrenders to her lamprey-like aesthetic interests which partially suck any cohesive argument dry.
A lack of cohesion – a glorious reverie for dysfunction more interested in kicking up dirt than in casting it in any particular direction – has its place in the world though, and I’m convinced Amirpour has her place too. This new film is substantially less knowingly otherworldly and mythically alluring than her debut feature, but it at least feels like it has access to the same well of cinematic influences, ethical concerns, and probably drugs as well. A disarranged, muddled quality equal parts honorarium and moratorium thrums throughout, a messiness that is as intoxicating as problematic. She certainly fetishizes everything under the sun, which can be dangerous, but she also reveals a slippery, silly wit about her, a winking and self-aware smirk that suggests how this world is closer to costume-party than most other incessantly serious, sober apocalypse films. She dalliances with sun-spoiled high-camp, spazzed-out Mad Max-isms, body horror, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Giovanni Ribisi, and Diego Luna, some of whom are nearly unrecognizable. Her film is nothing if not interesting.
Above all, Amirpour seems addicted to her own stench, desperate to prove that she is part of the auteurist in-crowd. What she loses is a sense of incertitude and doubt, a willingness to rest and consider the weight and implications of the storm she whips up. A better film would have turned ambivalence into a kind of agency by realizing its own capacity for self-reflection and self-doubt, its ability to reconsider its actions before diving head-first into sleek, self-consciously iconographic images designed to woo exploitation-junkies. I’m still on board – two films into her career at least – but I do hope that she, if not matures exactly, utilizes the potency of her vicious bouts, even seizures, of cinematic immaturity in new ways beyond this drugged-out fantasia, at least before the real apocalypse hits. A truly great film from Amirpour might even have a hand in beckoning forth that Armageddon, rather than merely playing dress-up in the fallout.