At a time when presidential candidate Donald Trump is advocating the construction of a physical wall to protect the national purity of the American population, the science-fiction conceit of “The Bad Batch” — in which an assortment of supposed undesirables are exiled to a fenced-off desert wasteland past the Texas border — doesn’t sound all that dystopian. After her terrific freshman effort “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” slipped some intersectional feminism into its slinky modern vampire tale, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour’s glossed-up follow-up once more weaves independent identity politics into a stylish, blood-spattered mash-up of genres, from cannibal exploitation to spaghetti western. The result, while far busier than Amirpour’s debut, somehow seems to have less going on inside: Though there’s much to savor in the pic’s lavishly distressed visuals and soundscape, its narrative feels increasingly stretched and desultory.
With its glistening soundtrack dominated by Brooklyn electro duo Darkside, eccentric star casting — complete with a near-incognito cameo for Jim Carrey — and Vice Media production credentials, “The Bad Batch” seems to be angling hard for the youthful cult following that is coming more gradually to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” The film certainly has enough outward swagger to get it, but whether its heavy-handed state-of-the-nation symbolism will resonate with audiences in the quite the way it intends is another question. For many, the styling and story world presented here will evoke last year’s beloved blockbuster “Mad Max: Fury Road,” a less explicitly political work that nonetheless, with its progressive plea for gender parity, is very much a film for its times. Amirpour’s own grungy desert dust-ride is more meandering and less immediate in its impact.
Still, as sophomore slumps go, “The Bad Batch” remains a seductive one, alive with electric imagery and inchoate ideas regarding heroism in the margins, and the fundamental inequity of the American Dream. Would that Amirpour trusted the subtext of her own script a bit more: There’s surely little need for on-screen billboards bearing slogans like, “You can’t enter the Dream, the Dream enters you.”
Happily, Amirpour’s visual storytelling has rather more fluency and wit. The film’s near-wordless opening reel is sensational, setting up its nightmare near-future America with crisp economy. So much so, in fact, that we never see “America” itself — only the unnamed no-man’s-land where our young heroine Arlen (British supermodel-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse, exerting a cool presence despite a touch-and-go Southern accent) is dumped by military officials after a period of incarceration. Like thousands of other former American residents, she has been branded (literally so, via an identifying tattoo) a member of the Bad Batch, a catch-all collective term for the miscreants, misfits and immigrants deemed unfit for society by the U.S. authorities.
Left to their own devices in this arid wilderness, these outcasts have formed their own social divisions. While those on the Bridge survive on cannibalism and aggressive iron-pumping, members of the so-called Comfort community go in for more narcotic-fueled hedonism, lorded over by skeezy, mustachioed commune leader Rockwell (a broadly leering Keanu Reeves). Captured and confined by the Bridge folk in a taut pre-title chase, Arlen loses two of her limbs to dinner preparations before she fashions a skateboard-assisted escape and finds sanctuary in, well, Comfort — though, as the timeline jumps forward five months, it’s clear that she doesn’t fit this society any more than the last one to evict her. (Why Arlen was declared “bad” in the first place is left to the imagination.)
Arlen zigzags uncertainly between this temporary home and the unknown promise of the desert — where she becomes the accidental guardian of motherless child Miel (Jayda Fink), whose Cuban-expat cannibal father Miami Man (hulking “Game of Thrones” alum Jason Momoa) is searching for her. As the characters’ paths cross (and criss-cross), however, the film becomes as unmoored and arbitrary in its movements as they do; at nearly two hours in length, “The Bad Batch” could stand to streamline its rescue tale considerably, at little cost to its contemporary political undertow.
As it drifts and dawdles through its elaborately detailed, none-too-fantastical fantasy world of LSD parties and wall-less makeshift strip malls, the film touches upon a number of intriguing moral ironies and reversals. The family values of cannibals are brought improbably to the fore, while the free-living principles of Comfort emerge merely as a sinister twist on conservative values in the private domain of the all-too-tellingly named Rockwell — who inhabits a veritable Playboy Mansion of pregnant women emblazoned with the words, “The Dream is inside me.”
Yet “The Bad Batch” rarely delves more searchingly beneath such glib surface commentary to expose deeper yearnings in its imagined American hinterland: As a deranged hobo (Giovanni Ribisi) gestures toward his half-complete jigsaw puzzle of the Star-Spangled Banner, it’s the blunt symbol we’re invited to consider, not its damaged human presenter. (In many respects, “The Bad Batch” would fit on a bristly double-bill with Andrea Arnold’s recent “American Honey”: Both are stories of young women, failed by mainstream society, seeking their place on the fringes, though while Arnold takes an intuitively emotive approach, Amirpour’s is far more schematic.)
To be fair, with its legion grindhouse references and deliberately glassy performance style, “The Bad Batch” isn’t necessarily out to touch the heart. But the film doesn’t exactly quicken it, either: the dreamy deliberation that Amirpour’s debut used to such tense effect doesn’t cast quite the same spell here.
At least its occasional rhythmic lulls afford viewers ample time to admire the dazzling contributions of the director’s two most essential collaborators. Her returning cinematographer Lyle Vincent, switching to scorched color from “A Girl’s” razor-sharp black-and-white, keeps finding unexpected visual bliss in the most hellish surrounds: the paintbox hues of stacked industrial containers, or a speckled spray of neon-green light on Arlen’s face during an outdoor rave. Production designer Brandon Tonner-Connolly, meanwhile, cannily fashions a second-hand America using all the cultural debris that the nation apparently discarded along with these people: “The Bad Batch” doesn’t hold out much hope for the future, it seems, but your 1980s boombox can look forward to a comeback.