The Bad Batch is not for the faint of heart. It opens on the image of a striking young woman cast out by the powers that be, through a colossal metal fence separating Texas from a dystopian wasteland. She traipses across the desert and seeks refuge in a broken-down car, only to be spotted by someone in a golf cart approaching at high speed. Before you know it, she’s been abducted, drugged, and amputated, her arm and leg grinded off by a hacksaw—to Ace of Base’s “All That She Wants,” no less—and barbecued on a spit.
One observer was apparently so shocked by the film’s violence that she accosted its director, Ana Lily Amirpour, following its first screenings at the Venice Film Festival.
“A woman got so angry at the press conference about the violence in the film that she said, ‘The pope would not approve of this!’” recalls a chuckling Amirpour. “And I was like, ‘Was the pope at my screening?!’”
Amirpour’s post-apocalyptic fable, and highly anticipated followup to her Iranian vampire spaghetti Western A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, centers on Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), the aforementioned double amputee. She is a member of The Bad Batch, a group of undesirables who have been banished from society. After Arlen escapes from the cannibal hangout known as the Bridge, one lorded over by a hulking Cuban immigrant (Jason Momoa, aka Khal Drogo, aka Aquaman), she’s scooped up by a sun-battered scavenger (an unrecognizable Jim Carrey) and delivered to Comfort, a harmonious community whose dwellers chow down on Asian noodles, stroke pet rabbits, and host sweaty dance parties.
The premise of The Bad Batch, written while Amirpour was editing A Girl, was not only inspired by films like The Road Warrior, El Topo, and Pretty in Pink, but also the 35-year-old’s split from her husband.
“At the time, I was going through massive life changes in my personal life where I felt like I was savagely chopped up as far as what was happening to my identity, and I had this image of this girl in this desert who is chopped to pieces but still alive,” says Amirpour. “How do you figure out how to go on, and survive?”
“It wasn’t a bad breakup—I actually did it. I was married, and then I was unmarried, because I didn’t want to be married,” she continues. “So it wasn’t bad. Some people settle in to the sameness their whole lives, but I’ve always had massive changes where I like to completely level my reality. Just leave. When I was 19, I dropped out of college, moved to Colorado, and lived in the woods for four months; where you completely take away everything you knew and then have to figure out who you are again.”
Arlen is forced to sculpt a new reality for herself, too. She’s outfitted with a leg brace, limping about like Mel Gibson in The Road Warrior, and doesn’t leave her trailer without her revolver. One night, she attends a Burning Man-esque desert dancefest at Comfort presided over by the community’s leader, Rockwell (Keanu Reeves)—a paunchy drug lord with a messiah complex resembling Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton character. After tripping hard on acid, Arlen wanders off beyond the walls of Comfort. There, she comes face-to-face with Momoa’s hulking cannibal, who’s on the hunt for his missing daughter.
Here, Momoa’s character—who has “Miami Man” tattooed across his chest—opens up about how he immigrated to America illegally from Cuba, and how many of those in The Bad Batch are illegal immigrants. Between the wall(s) and the xenophobia, it’s hard not to see Amirpour’s film as a rebuke of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s hardline stance on Mexico. Of course, Amirpour shot the film about a year and a half ago, before Trump’s presidential announcement speech describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and drug runners.
“That is part of the reality—and it’s not just now, it’s always been. Now it’s in this crazy, pressurized context,” says Amirpour. “Hey, if this film in any way helps to highlight the extreme absurdity of [Trumpian xenophobia], great. And with all the wall talk, I thought, fuck, man! I guess I was ahead of the curve.”
She pauses. “When I made Girl, it wasn’t actually about vampires; it was about a lonely person cut off from the rest of humanity. I don’t feel this is really about cannibalism, but it became an interesting thing to ponder. Us human beings do awful, awful things to each other—and for much worse reasons than hunger—so it became this way to explore how we treat each other. It does feel absurd sometimes, the reasons we have to be so fucking chaotically shitty to each other.”
One of the brightest spots of The Bad Batch is Waterhouse, the British model-turned-actress who’s best known to casual cinemagoers as the ex-girlfriend of Bradley Cooper. She imbues Arlen with a unique blend of vulnerability and valor, and man, can she hold a close-up. Amirpour launched an exhaustive search for her leading lady, interviewing several actresses—A-list and other—at her apartment.
“If you meet her and talk to her, you will immediately know that she’s a warrior-goddess, she’s feral, and she’s incredibly smart,” says Amirpour. “I had known young actresses that wanted to do this movie, and they did not interest me. I had this thing where I felt there were no young actresses that excite me… I felt like there was a time when there were a lot of exciting young actresses who were unique and had a personality. People like Marisa Tomei, Uma Thurman, Cameron Diaz; they all looked different and had really distinct personalities. But now, it’s not that way. All of the great American actresses are British or Aussie, so it’s a weird thing. And in that young-actress age group there’s this strange Instagram mentality.”
Amirpour is proud of her Waterhouse discovery, and has vowed to continue providing platforms for up-and-coming actresses that excite her.
“She’s the next thing, and I had her first,” beams the filmmaker. “It’s a very rare privilege to be like, ‘I’m gonna put this actress out there into the pool, go make movies with her,’ and I’m gonna keep doing it. I’m gonna do it again in my next movie. You’ll see.”