In the near-silent opening stretch of Ana Lily Amirpour's The Bad Batch, stringy-haired Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is attacked by cannibals, knocked out, drugged, amputated, partially devoured, and smeared in her own waste. Nevertheless, she persists. By skateboard and busted shopping cart, the one-armed, one-legged girl rolls herself to safety. And when she arrives in the desert town of Comfort, the greeters shrug, "She stinks. But she's alive."
On this side of the border, life and stench are synonymous. Every resident's been deemed bad, and has the identification tattoo to prove it — not that anyone good is checking IDs on this side of the 30-foot barbed wire gate that separates the creeps from Texas. Here, there are two tribes: The scrawny residents of Comfort, who exist on rabbits, pasta, and drugs from a cult leader called The Dream (Keanu Reeves with a Vegas Elvis ’do), and the man-eating jocks of The Bridge, who've built shelters from downed planes and lifeguard towers and an excess of American flags as though living in the bones of a desiccated civilization. Every day is a quiet Wile E. Coyote survival quest without the hope of cartoon resurrection. The only rule is that there are no rules. As the entrance sign warns: "No person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized, or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein." In other words, “Good luck.” If you’re wondering if Amirpour's taking a jab at merciless deportations, she's also translated the sign into Spanish: "Buena suerte."
What's Arlen done to get expelled? Who knows, though she looks like the kind of clichéd bad girl that parents order their children to avoid: too much eyeliner, too little clothing, and a tattoo of cherries on her chest. She's so uneducated she thinks Cuba is near Hawaii. Still, she's merely Instagram bad — not kill-or-be-killed bad, at least not until the amputee wants revenge. And so Waterhouse gives Arlen the sullen, thick-browed glower of a fighter, plus the Southern drawl of a Brit disguising their accent with vocal Febreze. (Waterhouse is a model from London.)
Amirpour is a skater chick from California and Florida by way of Iran, and her first feature, the black-and-white Farsi vampire flick A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, was a megaphone announcing her strange voice. She became an instant indie darling, voted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before her second feature was finished. The Bad Batch is strange, but it's not as strange as her debut, which might disappoint audiences who want her to be a weirdo in the margins. Yet it's also proof that Amirpour has ambitions bigger than the art house. She wants to make big, colorful blockbusters, too, and The Bad Batch feels like an audition reel to take over Mad Max if George Miller ever hands over the keys. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night could only have been made by her, a director who'd dream up a bloodsucker gliding on a skateboard in a batwing chador. Bad Batch is more generic, but only by comparison. Amirpour's brutal, sunbaked Western still feels like a gateway drug to her brain.
There, you'll find ironic thrift store threads, a giant boom-box car I swear I saw at Burning Man, an acid-washed soundtrack, several well-trained crows, and a post-America so adamantly color-blended that a quick shot of a white dog humping a black dog felt like A Choice. There's great sound design — think flapping wings, rattling wheels, and mysterious thrums. But the film isn't pretty in the way Girl Walks Home fans might have hoped. This is the type of fantasy that admits its characters get sunburned and dirty and need to, er, use the bathroom. It takes a female director to allow her female star to be this un-vain. Amirpour would rather be bold than beautiful, setting up striking shots with Arlen limping across the sandy nothingness, or staring straight ahead as an enemy sneaks up on her from behind. Amirpour allows herself only one indulgently gorgeous sequence in which Arlen takes hallucinogens under a network of stars, each as sharp as she is blurred. Arlen's body vibrates into a double exposure, and when the stoned girl turns her head, her face can't keep pace with itself.
Under the violent sun, mankind is meat. Arlen is veal to the women who eat two of her limbs. But the buff, Speedo-clad killers of The Bridge are meat to Amirpour. She shoots their muscles in slow motion, inviting us to savor her leering fascination with flesh: big bellies, big arms, big backs that ripple as though Rocky Balboa clobbered them in the ribs.
And no one is bigger than Jason Momoa's Miami Man, so named for the Gothic font across his collarbones. Open Darwin's dictionary to "survival of the fittest" and you'll see his portrait. He might have even drawn it himself, as this cannibal who casually snaps his dinner's neck spends his nights drawing pictures of his young daughter (Jayda Fink) in his sketchbook. Shirtless in high-waisted ’40s pinstripe pants, he looks like the ultimate protector dad. He's providing for his family, even if his wife (Yolonda Ross) is sick of barbecued bimbo thigh. Poor Momoa could do without his character's terrible Cuban accent, which sounds like Havana by way of the Swedish Chef. (I vote the film could do without any words at all.) When his daughter goes missing, he sets out on the world's most tongue-mangled quest, trudging up to strangers like an unrecognizable Jim Carrey's crow-trapping hermit and asking, "Ju see a kid loo like tha?"
Miami Man doesn't enjoy murder; he's just adapted to the land. He's evolved. If hasty Arlen, who's grabbed a gun and is heading out toward The Bridge for vengeance, is a thoughtless primitive, he's an intelligent brute. She does the right things all wrong, and he does the wrong things all right. Both would resent the idea that they could learn from each other, and neither one of these near-mutes is ever going to give a big speech about it. Which means Amirpour's put herself in a bind: It's possible to watch The Bad Batch, see only a hipper-than-thou dystopian Western, and miss her real intention, which is to depict a cross-examination of the moral certainty that leads people to declare who's good and bad, even when everyone's on the same side of the fence.
When her leads collide, Amirpour fills the frame with Momoa's shoulders. Waterhouse looks up at him in awe. "You're big," says Arlen. His size is shocking. It's shot straight from the cover of a pulpy romance, but under the tension of boy-meets-girl is the suspicion of hunter-meets-prey. The Bad Batch lets the uncertainty linger. Is Arlen radiating fear or heat? Love's a luxury only for people on the other side of the fence.