'The Bad Batch': Venice Review

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Suki Waterhouse in 'The Bad Batch'
A girl walks out alone into a man-eat-man desert wasteland.

Writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour follows her Iranian vampire movie, 'A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,' by setting Suki Waterhouse adrift in a lawless land of cannibals, cult crazies, acid raves and Keanu Reeves.

A savage dystopian fairy tale in which one of the few comforting images is of a makeshift family dining in the desert on a spit-roasted pet bunny, The Bad Batch is another surreally atmospheric post-feminist genre spin from Ana Lily Amirpour. As with the Iranian-American writer-director's 2014 Sundance discovery, the vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the new film is both violent and dreamy — a bewitching fusion of The Road Warrior with Robert Rodriguez-style scorched-earth badassery and a mystical Western strain that tips its hat to Alejandro Jodorowsky's El Topo. But those influences notwithstanding, Amirpour creates a world that's very much her own.

Running close to two hours, the movie is overlong and not without draggy patches, but it's sustained enough to keep you watching. And with its depiction of an extraterritorial American wasteland where society's rejects are dumped to fend for themselves after being tattooed with a "bad batch" number, it's also a bizarro fantasy that might easily be the hideous result of some kind of demagogical Donald Trump cleanup experiment. Its weirdness alone should guarantee the movie an audience, unlike The Neon Demon, a far more self-indulgent and self-consciously droll recent excursion into genre art that shared scenes of human snack food.

Amirpour switches from Farsi to English and from black-and-white into sweaty color for her second feature — backed by Annapurna Pictures and Vice Media — along with a more expansive visual canvas and a supporting cast peppered with names in oddball anti-star roles.

A cacophony of announcements at some kind of criminal processing facility reveals that a fresh "bad batch" intake is coming through, and we see Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) being escorted through the gate of a massive metal fence. But this fence is there to keep people out, not in. A sign reads: "Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. Hereafter 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. Good luck."

Arlen's luck runs out fast. She barely has time to take shelter from the sun in a wrecked car and freshen her lipstick when she's abducted by scouts from a nearby cannibal community, who appear out of the sweltering desert blur on a golf buggy. She's drugged but still conscious enough to watch in horror as they unburden her of a limb or two using a hacksaw, cauterizing the wounds with a fry pan. Down but not defeated, Arlen manages to overpower her captor and escape on a skateboard, picked up half-dead in the desert by a wandering mute hermit (Jim Carrey) with a supermarket shopping cart.

As an opening act, this is pretty juicy stuff, as lurid and grisly as anything that ever came out of the Italian flesh-eater exploitation wave of the 1970s, though with a far cooler detachment and a delightful playlist of music that ranges from unnerving to sardonic to hallucinogenic. Arlen's nightmarish ordeal is ushered in by the bouncy early-'90s dance pop of Swedish group Ace of Base's "All That She Wants," in the first of many instances of unexpected music choices yielding slyly twisted results. (The film has no actual score, though it features a soupy soundscape, dense with ambient dread.)

Having saved her from the Bridge, as the cannibal hangout is known, the hermit delivers Arlen to a more welcoming community called Comfort, its citizens protected behind guarded walls of rusted shipping containers. Five months later she's been fitted out with a patched-together prosthetic leg, though despite having a home and protection, she sticks to the tribe’s fringes. Packing a pistol to go out solo and explore beyond the walls, Arlen encounters one of her former captors (Yolonda Ross), and soon finds herself being trailed back to Comfort by a young girl we eventually learn is named Honey (Jayda Fink).

While this character appears to be Amirpour’s homage to the Feral Kid in The Road Warrior, she's also a dead ringer for Ripley's surrogate urchin Newt in Aliens. But Honey has a fiercely devoted protector, a mountain of muscle from Cuba, whose port of illegal entry into the U.S. is emblazoned across his bulging pecs in a tattoo that reads Miami Man (Jason Momoa, the smoldering Dothraki hunk from Game of Thrones). When Arlen inevitably encounters the Miami Man, she's still spinning out from an acid-fueled dance party back at Comfort, which gets them off to an interesting start even if he threatens to kill her should she fail to return Honey safely to him.

Former model Waterhouse isn't required to do an awful lot beyond looking tough and watchful as she navigates this vicious world, rocking artfully distressed tank tops and cheeky cutoffs. But she manages those duties just fine while suggesting both the propensity for trouble that earned Arlen's "bad batch" label, as well as the underlying purity that makes her still long for a real connection. And Momoa can brood with the best of them, not to mention his handiness with a meat cleaver.

Where the movie's hold weakens a little due to shaky plotting and questionable casting is in scenes during which Arlen infiltrates the luxury HQ from which the cult leader known as The Dream (Keanu Reeves) controls Comfort. This begins with a lengthy discourse about, of all things, the political significance of sewage management. (To its advantage, the movie elsewhere mostly keeps dialogue to a minimum.)  But while Reeves appears to be enjoying himself in his Elvis-meets-Engelbert Humperdinck getup, his dim intensity makes him an unconvincing charismatic leader. But then maybe having a flock of citizens blindly following a self-serving figurehead of dubious benevolence is Amirpour's point. While the director's reverence for George Miller's initial Mad Max installments is clear, she also evokes the more recent Fury Road in The Dream's breeding plan.

Even when the dramatic momentum slackens, the movie's grindhouse world remains vividly rendered and immersive, full of inventive touches from production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly. The Bridge inhabitants, for example, live in a vehicular graveyard that includes the fuselage of multiple plane wrecks, while party time at Comfort involves a DJ booth housed in a giant neon-trimmed '80s-style boom box on wheels, with an unbilled Diego Luna manning the turntable.

Giovanni Ribisi also shows up as a crazed Comfort dweller from whose rants one infers that he has arcane knowledge about the lost pieces of the American Dream, while Carrey's wordless role encompasses some amusing silent-movie shtick when the toothless tramp poses for a portrait from gifted sketch artist Miami Man; later, he gives new meaning to the term "eat crow."

The Bad Batch looks sensational. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent — he also worked with Amirpour on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, as did editor Alix O'Flinn and costumer Natalie O'Brien — gives even the pastels a sinister glow in the vast desert skies over parched, flat ground, at one point whipped by a dust storm. (Shooting, as in Amirpour's previous film, took place in desert locales around Los Angeles.)

But the sharpest tool in the movie's arsenal is its soundtrack, which makes extensive use of sonic duo Darkside, along with tracks from South African hip-hop concept band Die Antwoord, synth-wave exponent Jordan Lieb, who records as Black Light Smoke, indie ambient purveyor Francis Harris, and Portland's Federale, whose Ennio Morricone-influenced spaghetti Western tracks also were featured in Amirpour's first film.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition); also in Toronto festival
Cast: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Giovanni Ribisi, Yolonda Ross, Jayda Fink, Cory Roberts, Louie Lopez, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Diego Luna
Production companies: Annapurna Pictures, Vice Media, Human Stew Factory
Director-screenwriter: Ana Lily Amirpour
Producers: Sina Sayyah, Danny Gabai
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Eddy Moretti, Shane Smith
Director of photography: Lyle Vincent
Production designer: Brandon Tonner-Connolly
Costume designer: Natalie O'Brien
Editor: Alex O'Flinn
Casting: Justine Arteta, Kim Davis-Wagner
Sales: Annapurna International

No rating, 117 minutes.

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