Not Even Cannibal Jason Momoa Can Save Ana Lily Amirpour's 'The Bad Batch' [TIFF Review]

Two years ago, Ana Lily Amirpour came seemingly out of nowhere with her singular first feature, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The black-and-white feminist Iranian vampire Western felt like nothing we'd seen before — heck, just the description "black-and-white feminist Iranian vampire Western" sounds like nothing we've seen before. Now all eyes are on her as she debuts her second film, The Bad Batch.

In concept and style, The Bad Batch is every bit as dazzlingly unique as Amirpour's last film. It's set in a dusty dystopian landscape that looks like Venice Beach by way of Mad Max, with some Burning Man and Electric Daisy Carnival thrown in for good measure. Our main characters are Miami Man, a hulking cannibal played by Jason Momoa, and Arlen, a tough bit of prey played by Suki Waterhouse, and the story follows their unexpected collision. But despite a promising start, The Bad Batch runs out of gas about halfway through, and spends the rest of its time meandering through a halfhearted narrative. 

The title refers to a class of outcast in Amirpour's dystopian North America. Miami Man, Arlen, and all the other characters we encounter are "Bad Batch," i.e., people who've been deemed unfit for civilized society and left to fend for themselves in a lawless wasteland just outside Texas. The relevance to our current political climate is obvious — the U.S. border is marked by a fence, and those in exile include poor people, mentally ill people, and a seemingly disproportionate number of people of color. As the film opens, we see two law enforcement officers locking Arlen out on the other side of the fence, leaving the young woman with just a hamburger and a jug of water to sustain her until her luck runs out. As it turns out, her luck runs out pretty quickly, as she's quickly scooped up by raiders from a cannibal community.

The Bad Batch review

Amirpour has a talent for drawing from our collective cultural memory to craft memorable character introductions. When Arlen comes to after her capture, we hear the strains of Ace of Base's "All That She Wants." It's a perfectly sardonic choice. Miami Man gets a signature pop song, too — in one of his early scenes, he listens to "Karma Chameleon" while snapping the neck of his next (human) meal. Later in the film, during an epic rave, Keanu Reeves makes an entrance looking like a cult leader as styled by Pablo Escobar.

The problem comes when Amirpour tries to dig past the tropes and references to draw out flesh-and-blood people. Visually, Arlen and Miami Man exude an effortless cool, but the second they open their mouths they grow rapidly less interesting. No Game of Thrones fan will be surprised to hear that Momoa can convey menace and magnetism and tenderness while maintaining a stony silence, but not even he can power through the distractingly thick accent he's saddled with. It says something that the only actor who can convincingly deliver Amirpour's clunky dialogue is Reeves, whose character is purposely designed to be an off-putting caricature.

The Bad Batch falters at precisely the time that Amirpour runs out of new settings and characters to wow us with, and begins trying to construct a cohesive story out of all these shiny parts. It feels as if, given the opportunity to build a world on a larger scale, Amirpour threw herself so wholeheartedly into that endeavor that she forgot she'd need to come up with a story, too. The connection between Miami Man and Arlen is never really convincing, and their motivations never really clear. If The Bad Batch has a message, its delivery is muddled beyond recognition.

By the time we get to the final act, it feels less like the film is speeding toward a climax and more like it's running in circles until it can drop to the ground in exhaustion. And in the end, we're left with nothing more substantive than a cloud of dust. But if The Bad Batch is an ultimately pointless journey, at least it's one that takes us through some genuinely new territory — one populated by bodybuilding cannibals and soundtracked by '90s-style boomboxes. I'd gladly go along on Amirpour's next ride just to see where she'll take us next.

/Film rating: 6.0 out of 10