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O'Shea Jackson Jr.
Extraordinary Film That Hugely Defies Initial Viewer Expectations
Most films tell you what they're about by their style and their trappings, and what happens in the opening scenes. THE BAD BATCH opens in a recognizably post-apocalyptic sort of setting (although it actually isn't -- more on that in a moment) and immediately features brutal, grisly violence. But the story that unfolds is completely unlike what you'd expect given that beginning.
To begin with, it's not shot like an action / adventure movie. The pace is measured, even contemplative, and the camera lingers on the actors' faces. In other words, it's shot like a family drama ... and in a way it is. I was moved nearly to tears by the movie's climax; to say that was the last thing I expected after the opening scenes would be a massive understatement.
It is, above all, tremendously thought-provoking. (And you now can see that in two or three important ways it's the polar opposite of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, a very clear influence and of course brilliant in its own completely different way.) First and foremost, it's an examination of the nature of morality and moral choices. There's a scene where you will ask yourself whether the act you have just seen was justified, indefensible, or some indescribable mixture of the two, even as you watch Suki Waterhouse (in a tremendous breakout performance) ask herself the same question -- what have I just done, and was it good or bad? The moral situation at the movie's end unconsciously evokes Ursula K. Le Guin's classic short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas" (after a special screening in Boston, writer / director Ana Lily Amirpour confirmed she was unfamiliar with it).
It's also a potent and cutting commentary on the problem of income inequality. The movie is actually set in the near future, where "bad batch" characters are exiled to a lawless fenced enclave in the former Texas desert, and left to fend for themselves. Unlike an actual post-apocalyptic setting, there's no inherited privileged class, and there's a lot less wealth for the powerful to hoard. It's never spoken of, but the characters seem always aware that whatever luxury they can achieve pales beside that which they left behind. It changes their psychology completely. So although the trappings are completely familiar, the situation is in fact utterly original. That originality underlies the moral situation and the depth of characterization.
The movie defies another convention: it never bothers to explain what seem (on surface) to be unlikely elements of the portrayed world. However, Amirpour says she did extensive world-building and even devised complete back stories for every character. Her strategy is to keep viewers as uninformed as the characters themselves. That may bother some, but I think it adds immensely to the movie's weight and power.
The film features a fine turn by Keanu Reeves as the leader of a settlement called (perhaps without irony) Comfort, and a wordless and barely recognizable Jim Carrey in a few key scenes, at least one of which is darkly hilarious. Giavanni Ribisi and Diego Luna show up in small roles, so you know that people wanted to do this movie. Jason Momoa (Aquaman) is excellent in a lead role, but it's Waterhouse that ultimately makes it all work.
It's shot almost entirely outdoors, and it's so impressive to look at that I plan to see it a second time on an even bigger screen. It borrows many familiar trappings but is almost startling in its refusal to use them in stereotypical ways, and it has haunted my brain since the moment the lights went up. In short, it's an exemplary addition to the small but growing group of art-house science fiction films. It more than fulfills the promise of Amirpour's art-house horror debut, A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT, and marks her as a major figure to watch in genre cinema.
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