Director Ana Lily Amirpour's second feature, The Bad Batch, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, is the dystopian cannibal romantic comedy you didn't know you needed in your life.
Starring British model-turned-actress Suki Waterhouse as Arlen and Jason Momoa (Game of Thrones) as a cannibal named Miami Man, the film was shot over just 28 days in the deserts of California, with Keanu Reeves and Jim Carrey in supporting roles.
The title refers to society's undesirables: the bad eggs, the outcasts, the criminals, the undocumented immigrants. This lumping together of varying shades of "bad" is intentional, and when Arlen crosses over the Texas border into a desert in the film's opening sequence, the current wasteland of the American presidential election comes into allegorical focus, too. Amirpour wrote the film two years ago and shooting took place in 2015, so her portrait of how America treats what it sees as the dregs of society is disturbingly prophetic.
When Arlen gets two limbs hacked off by a band of cannibals in the film's opening minutes, she escapes to Comfort and thirsts for revenge. If this is sounding a bit much, you're not wrong. The Bad Batch is like if The Road took a tab of acid or Sixteen Candles sipped iowaska. Which is to say, the film is an offbeat and twisted work coming from one of America's newest and most bloodthirsty independent directors.
Amirpour's first feature, a black and white Iranian "vampire spaghetti western" ominously called A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, made its debut to unanimous praise at the Sundance Film Festival in 2014 and swiftly got distribution from Vice, which also produced this new film. Amirpour is grateful to have people in the industry championing her work, but it has not changed her creative process. "I haven't been that different since I was 12 years old. The only thing that's changed is more people wanting to play my games with me. I think that making movies is like playing make-believe," she says. "I've just been working, and I like to be working. It's the only choice I have – it's like a madness."
Put in slightly different terms, her catapult into prominence – shored up already for The Bad Batch, which just won the Special Jury Prize at the Venice Film Festival – hasn't changed much for the filmmaker. "The prominence thing, I think it's an illusion, a trick," she says. "I feel like I've been doing the same thing for as long as I can remember. The thing changes, but the need to do it is always the same. Prominence is a tricky thing – you just need to keep doing the work, and you can't get too caught up in it. It's like The Devil's Advocate – have you seen that movie? I always think that movie is the best metaphor for Hollywood and the movie business."
Even if the business of Hollywood is akin to "a cosmic gag reel," to borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the aforementioned 1997 film, the art itself remains pure. According to Amirpour, "making films is like falling in love. When you're in love with someone, everything is about them – and it justifies every crazy, stupid thing you're doing."
Amirpour's filmmaking is in the same freaky vein as that of Harmony Korine, who is also known for his visceral images and taste for the putrid. Korine's Gummo (cited by Amirpour as a pivotal film for her) was skewered by critics when it came out in 1997, but Amirpour hasn't been met with the same acrimony. "I'm a romantic, so I think that helps alleviate some of the twisted stuff," she says, adding that "I have a very Hollywood-movies-Robert Zemeckis core in my DNA, and I don't think Korine goes there. I think I'm a sap and I just want a love story."
But Amirpour also likes a girl who can get riled up for some revenge, and The Bad Batch is a curious Venn diagram of these overlapping inclinations. As the mutilated lead, Waterhouse is the embodiment of this split between romance and violence that will appeal to some spectators and revolt others.
But the avant-garde doesn't exist to make you comfortable, and it never has. Film scholar Ara Osterweil writes about how in the 1960s the movies of Andy Warhol and Yoko Ono ushered in a new phase of the American art that championed a discomfiting way of seeing the body. The arrival of this flesh cinema, as she refers to it, called for experimental techniques and queer mise en scène to demystify the naked body and the warped ways our eroticisms take shape.
With The Bad Batch, Amirpour takes up the avant-garde mantle of flesh cinema. By casting a blonde, über-babe as her gruesomely amputated lead, the director reworks the contours of the leading lady and gives us an angry, vulnerable hero who will look different to you.
For her part, Waterhouse says it was Amirpour's unrelenting focus that helped her embody Arlen, and which helped her to grow up a bit too. Working with the director was "like having a giant life force suddenly appear – it was like a takeover," the actress says. "Having her choose me, and seeing something in me, [that] gave me a lot of confidence. She's helped me grow up – because it was a difficult and intense experience."
The Bad Batch is Waterhouse's first time in the lead role, but she wasn't concerned whether a postapocalyptic romcom about cannibals might get panned by critics. "When someone is as focused as Lily, and when something comes so directly from their soul matter – it can never really be a disaster," she says. "She's the only person I've worked with who doesn't allow anything to be anyone else's way. She has a vision for everything."
What the audience thinks it knows about beauty and strength is tested in The Bad Batch and, if you vibe with the film at all, it will allow you to see how the beautiful might look altogether different by the closing credits. Waterhouse's beauty – and by extension Arlen's – becomes the least interesting thing about her, as does her disability. Dystopian reality and utopian energy come together in this gorgeous freak show of a movie to create a world that is neither pure horror nor undiluted fantasy. Rather, it shows the cracks where postapocalyptic love can still grow as the blood continues to run.
The Bad Batch screens at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 18, 8:45 p.m., Hot Docs Cinema.