Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
July 2017

The Bad Batch

The leftovers

On bad batches and bad jokes, the vulnerabilities and absurdities of the postapocalyptic body, and the unmistakable vision of Ana Lily Amirpour

The Bad Batch
Director: Ana Lily Amirpour
Screenplay: Ana Lily Amirpour
Starring: Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Yolonda Ross and Giovanni Ribisi
Rated R / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / VOD
(out of four)

There's no being made whole again. The bad batch are just spare parts, after all. By their nature or by designation, by their circumstances or by their choice, they are discarded appendages, severed cords, phantom limbs. Civilization - whatever that might mean - has lopped them off and chucked them over the other side of a wall that, for all intents and purposes, might as well be a boundary between dimensions.

This side of that boundary is a wasteland of individual parts and pieces - the left-over, the discarded, the purposefully forgotten - and they're barely even trying (if at all) to put those, or any other, pieces back together again. Perhaps it's no wonder that, reduced to such a state, the denizens populating this world-outside-the-world see one another as resources, tools, scraps. They are responding in kind.

And so, Ana Lily Amirpour has given us another memorable fable of a neglected society feeding on itself. Three years after her kickass black-and-white debut A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian-American auteur delivers The Bad Batch, its consumption of human flesh-and-blood stripped of the cool romanticism of its predecessor's vampiric yearnings and replaced by a sense of guarded detachment as dry as the desert it inhabits. Either way, the body is once again her film's most important resource - as disposable as it is exploitable, as precious as it is fragile.

The only exposition we get, or need, comes in the form of a warning sign along the border, prominently displayed just as our soon-to-be-mutilated anti-heroine Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) is shoved through a flimsy metal fence and left to her own devices, a decisive but apathetic deportation. The sign reads: "WARNING: Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. That 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."

Governing bodies indeed. Amirpour's eye never lets us forget those bodies, and never runs out of ways to use them. Within minutes of us meeting Arlen, she's already being hunted - a valuable collection of useful and edible parts, out there alone in the wild, easy prey for the scavengers. It's best they don't think of her as a woman, or a person - and given the way people in this wasteland tend to ignore and keep their distance (eyes averted, heads down, backs turned), this seems to be popularly accepted wisdom. Her right arm and right leg are hacked off, the wounds treated so as to keep her alive for further use. But she takes matters into her own hands, and eventually winds up with a clumsy, rusty mechanical leg. Gets herself a pistol, too.

But even here, it seems there's a certain law of averages. Amirpour takes us from the defilement of the body to its worship, cutting - with cocksure authority - to a congregation of bodybuilders sculpting themselves in the desert sun, her camera lingering on every overstuffed skin, on every anguished lift and squat, on every veiny, wild-eyed expression straining to affirm its masculine potency. They are a grotesque absurdity, these meatheads. But there's something poetic in the proud defiance of their exile - their installment into a lawless place designed to physically deplete and destroy them. Next to the dismemberment of Arlen (and various other amputees we come across), they make for a fabulous juxtaposition - the broken and the perfected, the vulnerable and the mighty, the survivors and the untouched. (A similar - and more specific, more intimate - juxtaposition develops on screen, eventually, between Waterhouse and her famously chiseled co-star Jason Momoa, but we'll get to that soon enough.) Their bodies are unvarnished declarations of their existence, even their state of mind; physical presence and physical expression are things Amirpour seems to emphasize almost instinctively, a trait that runs throguh both of her films so far. Both films are light on dialogue and heavy on gazes and poses, leans and hovers; the way her physical subjects feel each other out paints a delicate line between violence and tenderness.

But what I think I like most about Amirpour's sensibility - and something that plays wonderfully with, and against, the physicality of her films - is the impish sense of humor she just can't seem to resist. Case in point: When Keanu Reeves' The Dream - a sort of seductively unscrupulous half-pimp, half-cult leader, and the closest thing this lawless desert has to an authority figure - has a sit-down with our dismembered Arlen, waxing philosophical about the state of this world and his place in it, he states, with absolute sincerity: "It costs a lot to be here ... it cost you an arm and a leg."

That Amirpour goes for such a magnificently corny joke - and that Reeves, who never oversells a line, is the one to deliver it - is one reason why The Bad Batch remains endearing even as it stops and starts and wobbles. This seems like kind of a classic example of a sophomore film from a burgeoning heavyweight - bigger and more ambitious, messier but perhaps even more interesting, than its predecessor. Subsequent viewings may well sand down all those things that seem like blemishes, and I'm looking forward to seeing the film again. Part of the issue may be my initial ambivalence about the performances she gets from her two leads. Waterhouse has an interesting vulnerability - the absence of two limbs only enhancing the effect - that gets undercut by the strength, even cruelty, she has to take on in order to survive. But it's hard to get much of a handle on her beyond that. She can be a bit of a disappearing act. Billed only as "Miami Man," Momoa is a magnetic presence, and yet the affected Latin accent he's trying to pull off is a perpetual distraction. (Thankfully, he doesn't talk all that much.)

The two characters' paths converge because those paths are ostensibly the same. Both are searching for Miami Man's daughter, Honey (Jayda Fink), who through a series of circumstances I won't spoil came to be under the care of Arlen, who subsequently lost her to The Dream (and his mini-fiefdom somewhere on the outskirts of this place) in the middle of a hallucinogenic stupor.

* Then again, what separates the "outskirts" from the non-outskirts, we can't entirely tell.

But despite my reservations about the two characters individually, I do like the way they interact physically when placed together in the frame. It's sort of ironically fitting, really - that in this existence, these two "parts" work best when they come together, not necessarily to create a whole but to create something ... some connection in a world largely bereft of them.

Beyond that, there are so many indelible details that bring the director's vision into focus. For one, how music is presented as an escape: the characters' almost sacred donning of headphones; the way a woman, in an early scene, turns up her own music to drown out Arlen's screams; and the centerpiece of The Dream's perpetual, floating party, a giant neon-lined boombox that towers over its enraptured revelers.

For another, the way Amirpour populates her spare landscape - the abandoned cars and golf carts and trailers (or what's left of them, anyway); the distinctly Californian flavor of its pseudo-civilization. Skate parks and beach bums and transients; a melting pot of cultures and subcultures.

Her work is so distinctive - and her worlds so distinctly uncivilized - that I can't imagine what a "civilized" Amirpour film would even look like. There's a freewheeling energy to both films - twisted and bleak as it may be in The Bad Batch - that seems to feed off its spare locations, its scattered populations, its detached people. Reeves' Dream is the closest this movie gets to a "community," but his domain feels deliberately alienating rather than being any sort of oasis. He's a low-level opportunist, not a savior.

The Bad Batch's cannibalistic postapocalypse has drawn comparison to Mad Max: Fury Road, and you can see why, but it's also very much its own fascinating, bedraggled beast. The similarity that resonates most may be the unexpected intimacy that emerges in the middle of its desolation, an intimacy that maybe makes these lives - Arlen's, Honey's, Miami Man's, even that of the wordless wanderer, played memorably by Jim Carrey, who scavenges for people and parts, pushing around what in a previous reality would have been called a shopping cart - worth continuing. At least in lieu of the alternative. Out of loneliness and exile springs the necessity of hope.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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