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Cannibals and Keanu Reeves Chew Scenery in THE BAD BATCH (Review)

Cannibals and Keanu Reeves Chew Scenery in THE BAD BATCH (Review)

Writer/director Ana Lily Amirpour roared onto the film stage with A Girl Walks Home At Night, which took the vampire genre into a trippy realm both romantic and brutal. Critics were overwhelmingly awed by her eccentric and daring debut, and have been eagerly anticipating Amirpour’s assuredly odd follow-up, The Bad Batch. This deranged drama pitches Jason Momoa, Keanu Reeves, and Jim Carrey into a dystopian wasteland of misfits, loners, and cannibals. Once more, Amirpour digs into genre to mold something uniquely her own: fierce, fucked up, and defiantly feminine.

English ingénue Suki Waterhouse fronts the film as Texas bad girl Arlen, who’s tossed out of the United States and left on the other side of a gun-lined border wall with just a bag of burgers and a jug of water. For some unknown trespass, she’s been branded “Bad Batch,” and cast out. So now, she must make her way in a desert littered with trash and creeping with cannibals. Before the first act is out, she’s been snatched and had her right arm and leg severed by a ravenous band of bodybuilders. But with wit, grit, and a pile of shit, she’s able to escape. Kicking herself across the hardened sand one-legged and supine on a skateboard, she finds Comfort, a fortressed colony in Bad Batch land where a drug peddling guru called The Dream (a porn-stached Keanu Reeves) rules.

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Safe but bored, Arlen soon straps on a prosthetic leg and handgun to stroll out into the wastelands. There, she finds a bit of vengeance, and accidentally kidnaps the cherub-cheeked daughter of cannibal Miami Man (Jason Momoa, tatted, topless and draped in pristine pinstriped dress slacks). When their paths first cross, it seems like Arlen’s met her end. But through trying to retrieve his lost daughter from the clutches of The Dream, these menacing misfits discover a chain-wielding warrior, a mute but magnanimous nomad (an unrecognizable but excellent Jim Carrey), and an unexpected but brilliant bond.

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The Bad Batch is devotedly weird, looping in drug trips, cults, mad men, man-eaters, and a pitch-black brand of comedy forged to make audiences only bark-laugh or church-giggle. As Arlen awakes strapped to a crude cutting board and at the mercy of hacksaw-wielding redneck, the Ace of Base song “All That She Wants” chirps from a nearby radio, mocking her with the lyrics, “When she woke up late in the morning light /And the day had just begun / She opened up her eyes and thought / Oh what a morning.” As Arlen pitifully but doggedly drags her dismembered self across the desert, a small painted sign in the foreground snarks: “FIND COMFORT.” And she strides out into the open wasteland, looking for trouble and some strange sense of solace, the winking smiley face on the butt of her yellow cutoffs winks at us. Even in darkness, there is a joyful absurdity, because fate is as funny as it is unkind.

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Watching The Bad Batch, I was reminded over and over of the willfully bonkers B-movies and salacious sexploitation flicks that Gilbert Godfried used to MC late nights on USA with Up All Night. I stayed up past bedtime to drink them in. Sneaking them by playing the volume low so as not to wake my parents, or disturb my little sister snoring on the bunk bed beneath me. In these low-budget genre flicks, I discovered the illicit bits kept from me on parent-approved television. I found violence, gore, and sex, sex, sex. Usually in very soft-core ways. But for a middle-schooler, it was exhilarating enough to make a lasting impression.

The Bad Batch revels in the same kinds of stories marked by sex and violence, but Amirpour is too clever to make a spectacle out of either. The severing of Arlen’s limbs happens out of frame, the focus instead on her face as she screams then blacks out from the overwhelming pain. Rather than some torrid sex scene between her and the beefy cannibal or the beer-bellied guru, there’s only highly charged sexual tension that relishes in chemistry and proximity. Yet this doesn’t feel like a cheat. It’s Amirpour bringing an unexpected level of sophistication into a schlocky genre. In quiet moments with Waterhouse, she folds in introspection, as Arlen tries to reclaim herself, fantasizing about being whole and desirable, or encouraging her little captive to help her put on eye-liner. Admittedly, the film’s slow pace and winding narrative might try audience patience. But the sheer force of Amirpour’s style kept this critic swooning.

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With vivid colors, grease and grime, Amirpour creates a world both beautiful and ugly, brutal yet laced with grace, like a dapper cannibal who sketches soulful portraits, when he’s not butchering yowling outcasts. The performances range from wooden (Waterhouse) to stoic (Momoa), from playful (Carrey) to abject scene chewing (Reeves). But this too feels a tribute to the B-movies that came before. And what? Do you want a Daniel Day-Lewis level of gravitas and severity in a drama where snowglobes are traded for weapons, pregnant women rest machine guns on their swollen bellies, and Diego Luna pops by to play a swaggering DJ whose uniform is an unbuttoned disco shirt and cigarette-stashing tighty-whities? Now that would be absurd.

Ultimately, The Bad Batch is challenging, unnerving, and even hilarious in whip-smart bursts. It’s a drama with its tongue planted firmly in cheek, and it’s comedy firmly sticking up a proud middle finger. It’s strange and surreal, grotesque and glorious. And It follows a deeply flawed, recklessly rebellious, and unapologetically passionate young woman through a treacherous terrain of the damned. In short, it’s a pitch-perfect sister flick to A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

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Kristy Puchko is a freelance entertainment reporter and film critic. You can find more of her reviews hereFollow her on Twitter! 

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