Consider, for a moment, a lesser “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Now consider a greater “Southland Tales.” Now drive out, preferably on a clapped-out scooter or a souped-up golf cart, into the Saharan expanse of quality that still exists between those two things, find the exact midpoint and plant a flag for Ana Lily Amirpour‘s second feature “The Bad Batch,” a film that frustratingly contains a good, or at least a fun movie, without actually being a good, or a particularly fun, movie. There’s hope, to be sure: a snip-happy re-edit of the exact footage that unfurled at its Venice premiere could maybe deliver exactly the rip-roaring, grotesque, 85-minute grindhouse nasty we all hoped that the director of “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” would turn in for her sophomore feature, but the 112-minute version plays instead like an unnecessary, long-after-the-fact, extended cut of that film. The perils of the broader-canvas follow-up to the sleek and economical indie debut are writ large: this is “Difficult Second Album: The Movie.”
The pacing issues are there from the start, but initially they can be chalked up to Amirpour pulling off a clever bait-and-switch, as she revs the narrative’s engines before kicking into gear. While ominously oppressive pronouncements play through a PA system in a facility near a scrubby border fence in Texas (wonder who paid for it), a young woman is forcibly neck-tattooed with her Bad Batch number. She is BB5040, but really she’s Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), and her branding as part of the so-called Batch essentially means she’s being ejected from civilized society, sent out into the dystopic Texas desert that is, in this alternate reality, no longer part of the United States and ungoverned by any of its laws. Dressed in tatty baseball cap and fluorescent pink denim cutoffs, and equipped with nothing but a stonewash backpack emblazoned with an old-school acid house smiley, Arlen is pushed out into the featureless desert and resignedly sets off in no particular direction.
Permanently squint-scowling into the sun through attractively straggly tendrils of dirty blonde hair, Arlen wanders a bit, before being spotted, pursued and caught by what turns out to be a raiding party of cannibals who chain her up, inject her with some drug, then unceremoniously lop off her right arm at the elbow and her right leg below the knee. This is what we came for, and it’s a blast — Hitchcock waited half the film before dispatching his heroine in “Psycho“; Amirpour hasn’t even hit us with the opening title and she’s already severely maimed hers. By the point at which the dismembered Arlen smears herself in her own shit to make herself inedible, then kills one of her captors and makes her escape, crawling like a worm through the dirt, you may find yourself ready to give her, and the movie, your whole heart.
But rather than capitalizing on that momentum, Amirpour throttles down again — a tendency she displays repeatedly whenever one of those cracking, grisly, fun scenes occurs. As we’ll discover, out here in the wasteland, there are Good Bad Batch and Bad Bad Batch. The good guys — seemingly defined as the ones who don’t eat people — live in a settlement called Comfort, which is presided over and supplied with various drugs, by a man known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves, sporting a Pablo Escobar stache). The Bad Bad Batch, from whom Arlen has escaped and in which the musclebound but artistic Miami Man (Jason Momoa) lives with his de facto daughter, have another encampment called The Bridge, which is full of steroidal bodybuilder types, for some reason.
Actually the reason is clear: Amirpour has a fascination with grotesqueries of the flesh, and DP Lyle Vincent‘s camera (which delivers inventive work throughout) often lingers in a kind of delirium on bodies and muscles and tattoos, or in one touching moment, a shot of Arlen pasting a cut-out arm from a porno mag onto her mirror, and posing so it looks like it’s her own.
But the film doesn’t do enough with those ideas to make them count, just as the scenes in which acid tabs are dispensed like communion wafers, or The Dream’s sinister ideology is put forth, or Trumpian injustice hinted at (the Cuban immigrant Miami Man confesses that he was Bad Batched because he didn’t have papers), all just sit there, mentioned but unexplored. It is no doubt intended as political allegory, but as subtexts go, “Don’t disenfranchise your undesirables because they’ll turn savage, corrupt and cannibal” doesn’t feel exactly incisive.
The absence of real-world resonance wouldn’t matter a damn though, if “The Bad Batch” functioned instead as the scuzzy genre exercise it teases. But the film’s crippling flaw in this regard is simply that every single shot goes on way too long, making shot-reverse-shot conversations feel interminable, and according every desert entrance (and there are a lot of them) with the weight of Omar Sharif riding up to the well in “Lawrence of Arabia.” There’s an endless acid trip scene (a personal bugbear, perhaps, but has there ever been a good one?) and, for such a relatively terse film, in which the kitsch soundtrack (Ace of Base, Culture Club, various EDM tunes and so on) does much of the talking, when characters do converse, the dialogue feels stilted, to put it kindly. It further doesn’t help that so many of the interactions are total narrative dead ends: pointless detours with characters who serve no function.
And there is a batch of those: Giovanni Ribisi‘s wandering, gibbering madman only has two scenes, in each of which he’s asked a question he does not know the reply to, and which turns out to have no bearing on the plot anyway. He fares better than Diego Luna, however, who plays the Comfort resident DJ and is not given a single line, or even a close up. A borderline unrecognizable Jim Carrey has no dialogue for the good reason that he plays mute — another indigent tramplike figure, wandering the desert and turning up as a handy deus ex machina at a couple of junctures, but again, contributing little besides some background color. More fundamentally, Reeves’ cut-price Immortan Joe is barely a character, and if there is chemistry between Momoa and Waterhouse (and her progression in regards to him is psychologically questionable at best) it’s snuffed out by Amirpour’s habit of hanging on every reaction, every sidelong glance and every incredulous glare for three times as long as is needed for it to register.
Amid all this torpor, the film’s better, less indulgent impulses are swamped, and that’s a shame because that opening 15 minutes or so is great, Brandon Tonner-Connolly‘s trailer park/junkyard production design adds layers of pleasingly trashy visual interest, Amirpour’s facility with an incongruous soundtrack choice has not deserted her, and individual scenes contain within them the souls of much sparkier, wittier, shorter versions that would really fly: Miami Man nonchalantly hacking off the arm of a guy he’s just killed to take with him on the road like it’s a Subway baguette; Carrey’s gurning desert hobo posing proudly for a heroic portrait in return for giving information; even the general thrust of a truculent, resourceful survivor girl trying to make a family for herself in a place where people are literally meat — all of these moments and notions deserve better than the ‘Bad Batch’ they got. [C]