The Bad Batch. 2017. Directed & Written by Ana Lily Amirpour.
Starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves, Jim Carrey, Yolonda Ross, Aye Hasegawa, Giovanni Ribisi, Louie Lopez Jr., E.R. Ruiz, Cory Roberts, & Diego Luna.
Human Stew Factory/Annapurna Pictures/Reel Chefs Catering/Vice Films
Rated R. 118 minutes.
It’s fair to say I love Ana Lily Amirpour. From A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night to her involvement in The Garlock Incident, I’m game for anything she brings to the screen; I’ll always at least give it a chance. She’s fresh, she’s unique, and she has definitively auteur-ish vision about how she chooses to write, as well as how she directs her films.
The Bad Batch comes along at the perfect time in American history. Forget what you believe, or what Amirpour’s said about the film, or anything you’ve read so far. I suggest this film is a spiritual envisioning of America, in the sense it’s where American society is heading, in metaphorical terms. In that vein, there are three separate perspectives on American life: spirituality, economy, and humanity.
There’s a lot to sort through in Amirpour’s film. On the surface, some see pretentiousness. Others just see dystopian fiction. For me, The Bad Batch is both a vision of where America’s heading and where it is currently. It’s not exactly futuristic, though it isn’t entirely all a surreal dream space. This place Amirpour explores is a nebulous yet compelling landscape of nightmares. But not a place entirely devoid of hope, either.
“If you forget everything else and not this, there’s nothing to worry about; but if you remember everything else and forget this, then you will have done nothing in your life.”
Let’s start with the spiritual desert of America. We could linger on the idea of a spiritual desert, in many ways, for ages. Rather than that, consider the above quote. Bobby (Giovanni Ribisi) wanders around the community of street people mumbling bits of this quote. What do his ramblings mean? Just random? No. I dug up this full quote from a collection of works called Mystics, Masters, Saints, & Sages: Stories of Enlightenment (published in 2001) by Robert Ullman and Judyth Reichenberg-Ullman with a foreword by none other than His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The actual quote comes from a section called “The Real Work” in a chapter about Jalaluddin Rumi, a 13th-century mystic and Sunni Muslim poet. My theory is that Bobby, like others in this just post-primitive society emerging from the desert, is symbolic of how Susan Sontag describes the beginning of new eras in The Aesthetics of Silence: “Every era has to reinvent the project of ‘spirituality‘ for itself.”
Echoes of Sontag return when considering Jim Carrey’s character, the Hermit, whose silent journey across the desert landscape of the bordered Bad Batch territory is curiously spiritual, too. On the one hand, Bobby is noticeably within society, to whatever degree the Dream’s (Keanu Reeves) state socialist community can be considered a society. On the other hand, the Hermit is outside society; he exists not even on the margins of the Bad Batch desert like the Miami Man (Jason Momoa) and the other cannibals, but literally roaming the outer reaches of the lonely sands. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church – a section called Article 9 “I Believe in the Holy Catholic Church” which discusses, specifically to my point, the ‘consecrated life’ – there is a paragraph featuring the eremitic life. Eremitic’s an archaic word for hermit/recluse/et cetera. And in this paragraph it reads: “Here is a particular call to find in the desert, in the thick of spiritual battle, the story of the Crucified One.” In a sense, Carrey’s Hermit is the spiritual hermit; maybe not specific to Christianity, I’m just using this as a further link to the concept of spirituality in the desert.
From spirituality, we move on to the territory of economy.
“Costs a lot to be here. Cost you an arm and a leg.”
The Dream runs a seemingly utopian society. Of course it’s still a shithole, but hey – there’s drugs! He makes it seem like it’s a home for all those deemed Bad Batch. Yet he keeps a harem of concubines to impregnate and serve him. Socialism isn’t inherently bad; it’s state-run socialism that’s worrisome. And the Dream is selling a dreamy existence where all Bad Batch can find comfort, but it’s really only him who’s getting to life that comfortable lifestyle he so shamelessly touts as an advantage to his community. It’s not even about money; bills are burned on campfires because capital is no longer measured in American dollars. He’s employing drugs, mainly, as a perverted way of affirming Marx without needing religion to serve as the “opium of the people.”
This brings me to the “economy of Comfort,” which I’m rephrasing in a particular manner as “the economy of comfort” with a lower case ‘c’ rather than with a capital, signifying the Dream’s community. An economy of comfort is reminiscent of something David Foster Wallace – among many others – took issue with, as an American citizen forced to watch his government destroy other countries while everybody at home’s happy about gas prices/various commodities. Boiling it down, the Dream’s little society is exactly what Wallace feared about America: a place where the comfort of the few outweighed the safety, and often lives, of the many. At the same time, while it seems that the community is better than sacrificing limbs to the cannibals, there’s still a sacrifice of the soul, the mind, and – for women, as usual – the body. In this way, is it all that much different within the tenuous walls of their city in the desert?
While people take drugs and party, and the Dream impregnates his concubines, people are out there in the desert perishing, others who are labelled Bad Batch, and he’s not exactly considered about them. Neither is he concerned about people in his own community actually living in a semi-squalor, buying the bullshit he’s selling them as salvation. Although there’s no doubt about it – living in the desert’s even worse.
“Non-functioning member of society.”
Arlen’s (Suki Waterhouse) journey is, above all, the most important, alongside the parallel journey of Miami Man. First, though, it’s worth noting how difficult this dystopian world is for women; not as if that’s unexpected, right? To start, I want to draw attention to the seemingly throwaway gag pictured above: Jizzy Fizzy, explosive cola. At first it seems like a funny little inclusion, especially considering it’s Miami Man, amongst a community of other jacked, bodybuilder-looking cannibals, drinking a can of Jizzy Fizzy. But pay attention to the cannibalism. There’s no definitive way to say the cannibals only eat women, however, we don’t see any other onscreen cannibalism of men. We do see there are women cannibals, just no indication, for sure, to say that both genders are consumed. Before, women were preyed on like eye candy, and in The Bad Batch they become actual food. Just as they’re still exploited in Comfort by the Dream and a patriarchal ruling class lording over the women + the haves and the have-nots.
I’m getting away from myself. Back to the Jizzy Fizzy. Pause for a chuckle.
If you search Urban Dictionary you’ll find that The Fizzy Jizzy is a made up soda-related sex term. This is likely a stretch on my part. I do know that Amirpour – judging from Twitter before she deleted her account awhile ago – has a raunchy sense of humour. It isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility she’s used the fictional Jizzy Fizzy explosive cola drink to play into the misogyny of this cannibalistic society amongst the Bad Batch desert. Luckily none of this is near the most interesting aspect of Miami Man or the film. The idea of the Bad Batch being quarantined from society by a border is where the meat of Amirpour’s story lies.
“You don’t see things how they are, you only see things how you are.”
“I don’t care. I hate you, get it?”
The coming together of Arlen and Miami Man, despite the murder on both sides, plays into a more humane look at opposing views. Can’t get much further than a woman who’s lost two limbs to cannibals and an actual cannibal. But they’re both Bad Batch, each stuck on the wrong side of a border in a vast prison state. They’ve been branded with tattoos, just like cattle. After a while, when you treat people like cattle, people start to treat themselves and other people in the same way. Their shared status as Bad Batch eventually brings them together to work towards a common goal.
One of the main themes of The Bad Batch is how society, and those we deem outside of it or Other, determines what is/isn’t good or bad. For instance, when a wall’s put up a division then allows people to say that, on the other side is where the ‘bad’ people – here, the Bad Batch – go. And the fact they’re even called Bad Batch shows there’s a title, a way to categorise the Other arising out of this division. All of this reminds me of Foucault’s perspective on the rise of the penal system and incarceration as an institution. Once this institutionalisation of punishment occurs, many in society are left vulnerable to being deemed as ‘bad’ by the rest of society. The Dream’s speech at the rave reflects this, as he mentions the various reasons people are labelled Bad Batch: not “smart enough,” “young enough,” “healthy enough,” “wealthy enough,” “sane enough,” and so on. Because, historically – think eugenics – this is how larger atrocities than borders begin happening.
Despite everything, Arlen and Miami Man illustrate how the individual is capable of enacting change. We witness Miami Man’s vicious, callous behaviour. Arlen comes along and changes that, even if it takes murdering the mother of his child. What’s most important are the last moments over the fire, when we witness a cannibal taking a step away from his ideology and start eating animals instead of people. Hatred is able to be reversed; albeit not without lots of love and tenderness and, yeah, plenty of violence, too. The change in Miami Man, set in motion by his life crashing into Arlen’s, is what I consider Amirpour’s biggest statement with this film. Far gone as the cannibal may have been, he starts to return, slightly, to humanity. Partly, his humanity only ever left because of how society categorised him, and others.
Finally, much importance lies in the fact Miami Man has the number 88 tattooed on him. Juxtapose his number with Arlen’s 5040. This shows how long the guy’s been out there in the desert. It took the newly Bad Batch Arlen to show someone who, at first glance, appears too far gone the way back to being human. Together, as individuals, they’re able to find humanity once more by beating back the labels forced upon them by society. No matter how bad society itself gets maybe love and understanding can still save a few people; it always starts with the individual(s).