What separates a filmmaker of vision from one with just a great eye? “The Bad Batch” answers that question in a way that will probably disappoint fans of Ana Lily Amirpour’s 2014 debut feature, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.”
Amirpour, England-born and Florida-raised, has been making films since adolescence, and she likes very much to play in the fields of the grindhouse. “Girl” was an unclassifiable oddity: a black-and-white spaghetti western female vampire flick, set in Iran but shot in Bakersfield, Calif. It exuded a studied, inventive cool that seemed to owe a lot to Jim Jarmusch.
For “The Bad Batch,” which could be fairly accurately described as a cannibal love story, Amirpour has changed her aesthetic dramatically. The time is the day after tomorrow, the setting the American desert, the colors hot and bleached. The vibe feels early-’70s drive-in, “Mad Max” meets “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Our heroine, a tough young drifter named Arlen (Suki Waterhouse, sullen and striking), is labeled a “Bad Batch” by the US government, tattooed with a number, and released into a fenced-off quarantine zone that feels like it encompasses the entire Southwest.
Here live all the cast-offs from decent society, organized into scruffy tribes of which we meet two. Unfortunately for Arlen, the first group she encounters is the one that likes to eat people, and the initial scenes of “The Bad Batch” are hellacious indeed, Arlen risking life and literal limb to avoid becoming part of the human feedlot.
This alarming notion of civilization feasting on itself is visualized with trashy, raw vibrancy, Amirpour shooting in a massive real-life airplane boneyard and pushing past notions of what’s proper, even in drive-in movies. But then “The Bad Batch” begins to wander off course as Arlen escapes to a desert village called Comfort, peopled mostly by blissful hippies and overseen by The Dream, a cult-leader charlatan with Jim Jones’s glasses and a menagerie of wives. That this sleazy, insinuating character is played by dude extraordinaire Keanu Reeves is meant to be a pretty good joke — and it is.
The manner in which Arlen comes by a little girl named Honey (Jayda Fink) strains belief, though, and when the girl’s musclebound father, Miami Man (Jason Momoa, Khal Drogo of “Game of Thrones”) — one of the more sensitive and artistic of the cannibals, apparently — sets out to find his child, “The Bad Batch” begins to curl into an unlikely and strangely simple-minded romance.
Still, Amirpour uses sound, music, and image in ways that can feel jaggedly fresh, and there are shots and a handful of sequences here that burn with originality: the cauterizing violence of the opening scenes; a night-time acid trip with a cool, disorienting beauty; the erotically charged intimacy that wells up whenever Arlen and Miami Man share the frame.
These are strong moments, pearls on a strand that hasn’t been knotted well enough to keep from breaking. Set in a wasteland, “The Bad Batch” indulges in waste of its own, bringing on the gifted Giovanni Ribisi (“Sneaky Pete”) as a crazy prophet and then doing nothing with the character, drafting a Major Comic Actor to play an unrecognizable hermit, and generally looking sideways at a misfit community whose rules change depending on what’s needed for any particular scene.
By the final sequences, the excitement of seeing what a young filmmaker with a ferociously distinct sensibility is going to do next has evaporated into the hot desert air. Amirpour has the potential to see things as no other filmmaker does, but she doesn’t yet have a vision, and she may not as long as she keeps fiddling around with genre conventions laid down by others. She’s an eccentric magpie of a director, and this time the pieces she collects glitter but never quite cohere.
THE BAD BATCH
Written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour. Starring Suki Waterhouse, Jason Momoa, Jayda Fink, Keanu Reeves. At Kendall Squareck. 118 minutes. R (violence, language, some drug content, brief nudity).Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com.