Generally, almost any piece of cinema can fit comfortably within one of two categories: it is either a film which revolves around plot or a film based on mood. And what is clear from the outset of The Bad Batch is that it is most definitely the latter.
Before watching this film, I have to admit I was skeptical. I hadn’t heard great things about it. With a very mixed bag of reviews, including a barely there Metacritic score of 61 and just 44% on Rotten Tomatoes, it wasn’t shaping up well, even before it started rolling. However, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The film has an oddly hazy brutality and offhand charm which is utterly entrancing to those who surrender themselves to it.
The basic premise, which is not given up easily to the viewer, is that those whom mainstream society deem to be undesirable, whether they are criminals, oddballs or just illegal immigrants, have been branded as ‘the bad batch’. They are henceforth exiled to desolate, fenced-off Texas desert to live out their lives separate from civilisation and the rule of law.
The story centres around a new addition to these outcasts, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), and her plight for survival after being unceremoniously tossed to society’s wayside. The events that unfurl, though beautifully shot, are a hard watch. In this wasteland, communities and settlements have formed, a large portion of which being cannibals. Without giving too much away, there is a generous handful of on-screen gore as a result, especially within the first 20 minutes, though it is as tastefully executed (please forgive the horrendous and completely unintentional pun) as possible.
The incredibly odd mood of this film is by far the most riveting aspect of its charm. It lies in a surprisingly workable place between Mad Max and a Miami resort wasteland. This does put it at risk of feeling inconsistent as a film, also bestowed with a disparate combination of action, meandering world-building and peculiarly sparse romance. This being said, once you’re settled into it, it is a dizzy and heavy-headed exploration of what society deems as ‘other’.
This film’s mood is so palpably prevalent mostly due to its lack of verbal dialogue. Exposition is a concept seemingly unknown to this film, instead opting to let the events unfold, usually wordless, for the viewer to interpret visually. As a measure, it takes a full 20 minutes from the start of the film for there to be any on-screen dialogue between two or more characters. It is this aspect of the film which may explain an extent of its low critic score. This brand of storytelling can be difficult to latch onto for those who prefer films with linear structures found in mainstream cinema.
For me, however, this esotericism makes the world even more immersive. Instead of the intellectual hand-holding found in many blockbusters, The Bad Batch requires unpicking. The backdrop of the scene is not placed neatly on the viewer’s lap by a conveniently placed voiceover or mechanically worded history lesson. It is a refreshing alternative, the visual storytelling presenting itself as a slice of life and saying “think of me what you please”. It shows an awful lot of restraint on the part of Ana Lily Amirpour, who is given both the writing and directing credits. This style proves to be utterly engrossing as it involves the viewer as complicit in both the meaning and the progression of the events. By having to find significance and direction in what is shown to them, the viewer is more inclined to feel involved in the progress of the film. In other words, the more a film can keep you guessing, the more enticing it is. And The Bad Batch definitely keeps its cards close to its chest.
What is also intriguing about this film is its characters. It would have been very easy to insert a glossy all-American protagonist and matching love interest into the mix, but that notion is entirely swept aside. The character of Suki Waterhouse’s Arlen is by no means perfect – she is just as stubborn and flawed as you would expect a teenage social recluse to be. Equally, Miami Man as portrayed by Jason Momoa is the definition of a problematic favourite. He is part of a cannibalistic settlement and is shown committing acts of violence, but he is humanised by having a daughter for whom he cares deeply. As a viewer, your loyalties and ethical judgements are pulled in all directions, drawing you into the same moral quandaries posed to the characters themselves. This all, I may add, with a bare minimum of verbal communication.
I mentioned at the beginning that this film has been met with a mixed response. A primary criticism that this film has attracted lies in the inconsistency of its pacing. The first act is rife with tension, violence and action. However, this slows to a comparative ambling pace once the protagonist, Arlen, has found her feet – so to speak – within the storyline. In all fairness, it is understandable that this could cause some extent of tonal whiplash, the viewer not knowing entirely what to expect of the film or how to gauge it in terms of genre. Though this is unusual, it is not necessarily a bad thing. If anything, it can be considered more representative of the experience of this otherworldly place, its strange suspension of conventional conceptions of time and location feeding into its dreamlike feel.
Stepping back from my own enchantment with The Bad Batch, it is justifiable to feel nonplussed by this film. The trailer (embedded at the end of this post, includes some minor spoilers) presents it as being packed with dystopian action, though this is not entirely the case for the actual product. If you were to go into this film expecting something akin to Mad Max, coming out of the experience instead with a sprawling arthouse vision would breed some dissatisfaction. But, as the film itself states, ‘being good and bad mostly depends on who you’re standing next to’. And when placed beside its contemporaries in indie, mood-driven cinema, The Bad Batch is certainly very, very good.
Have you seen The Bad Batch? What did you think of it? Disappointed or enthralled? Let me know in the comments!
P. S. – I know it’s a day late – sorry! I’ll make sure to schedule my posts from now on x
All credit for the images and trailer go to the respective owners.