Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Then Along Came the Bad Batch

There is perhaps no modern mythology more compelling than the western, and no modern mythological figure more captivating than the cowboy. The term "western" itself is so ingrained in our cultural lexicon that nobody batted an eye when in reviews of the movie Logan, people started referring to it as a western or neo-western. The rest of us nodded along knowingly at this obviously deep insight into the cross-pollination of movie genres without giving a whole lot of thought as to what this analysis actually meant. On the one hand, iconography from the western genre and the archetype of the cowboy himself have become so ingrained in our understanding of storytelling. But on the other hand, I'm willing to bet a fistful of dollars that the majority of Logan's audience had never heard of - let alone seen - Shane, the 1953 classic western that's explicitly referenced in the movie itself and that many critics then compared Logan to in a series of seemingly endless online analyses (exactly the kind of cheap, short-lived dialectical trend I would never embrace).

The thing is, though, we toss around terms like "western" simultaneously knowing exactly what they mean, but not knowing at all what they mean. And I don't think it's enough to set the bar as low as United States Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and simply resort to the dismissive and unhelpful ambiguity of "I know it when I see it." This is especially important when we talk about reimagining, deconstructing, or subverting genre tropes; before we can reasonably say that something has been deconstructed or reimagined, first we have to know how that thing is constructed or imagined in the first place.
The 2016 movie The Bad Batch is, perhaps, not at the top of people's minds when they think about the western genre, modern or otherwise. In fact, this movie is likely not on anybody's mind at all, as it was, unfortunately, largely overlooked by mainstream audiences when it was released. The list of top ten highest grossing films in 2016 included four superhero films and a Star Wars movie, which isn't a surprise for anybody even remotely paying attention to the state of cinema for the past ten years. But this is one of the problems that arises with so much focus on large blockbuster films to the exclusion of all else and the homogenizing effect that the dominance of one genre can have on the industry as a whole. Truly original lower-budget and mid-tier movies like The Bad Batch get lost in the shuffle, and it becomes part of the corporate self-fulfilling prophecy; the next Batman movie will get virtually unlimited resources thrown at it while films from artists like Ana Lily Amirpour get buried as a random line item on an accountant's spreadsheet. Then, the ensuing box office numbers are touted as proof positive that nobody wants to see original movies. Hell, if the fact that Warner Bros. could spend enough on advertising to trick audiences into dropping nearly three quarters of a billion dollars on Suicide Squad isn't evidence about the power of positive marketing, I don't know what is. The box office take for that movie sure as shit has no correlation to the quality of the final product.

The Bad Batch, Ana Lily Amirpour's second feature-length effort, is such a refreshingly original film experience, it was almost a given that it was destined to be largely ignored in a climate where the focus is on finding the next franchise, shared-universe, blockbuster behemoth to dominate screens and appease the wills of shareholders. As I sat down to watch The Bad Batch, I couldn't help but think that this was the type of movie you'd get if someone hired Harmony Korine to direct a western set in a dystopian hellscape. And I mean that in the best possible way. This movie has a hallucinatory quality as it immediately wraps its sunlight-infused tentacles around your brain, firing off neurons long-since numbed by countless scenes of heroes fighting faceless CGI hordes while blue skybeams threaten humanity.

There's none of that bombast in The Bad Batch. Instead, our Alice, Arlen (Suki Waterhouse), descends into her twisted desert Wonderland with barely even a word for the first twenty minutes of the movie. Exiled into a fenced-off wilderness outside of Texas for unnamed crimes in a dystopian United States, Arlen is initiated into her new setting with violence so raw and so unflinchingly brutal that it's as captivating as it is repulsive. Despite the odds stacked so decisively against her, Arlen somehow perseveres in the harsh new world in which she finds herself, a world dominated by a wild bunch of cannibal bodybuilders and rave-throwing cult leaders.

Arlen's journey into this strange, dystopian, desert world is probably not what most audiences immediately associate with westerns, but The Bad Batch is perhaps one of the best examples of the genre to come out in years, not only for the tropes that it invokes, but more interestingly, for how it subverts them. The Bad Batch is the perfect example of how the best genre-specific tropes never truly die, and how the old can truly be made new again. Subverting tropes is never truly divorced from embracing those same tropes.

Arlen is a neo-western protagonist, the latest in a storytelling lineage that stretches from Arthurian legend through to westerns, detective stories, and even martial arts films. In the totally real Master's thesis of Kenneth Lee Untiedt, The Evolution of the Fictional Western Hero, he effectively breaks down the characteristics of the typical protagonist of western narratives, giving a good baseline of where to begin in evaluating a movie as being in dialogue with the specific tropes of the genre. While The Bad Batch is a blending of multiple different genres, I think that reading the movie within the context of the conventions of the western, and in particular its protagonist Arlen within the context of a western protagonist, sheds a lot of light on the themes and the deeper meanings of the movie.

Specifically, Untiedt outlines eight key characteristics of a western protagonist:
  • Isolation: They are typically loners and spend their time outdoors, away from civilization and polite society.
  • Asexuality: They either show little to no interest in sex or are averse to long-term relationships because it infringes on their freedom.
  • Vigilantism: Typically, they find themselves in a lawless setting where they must rely on their own resources to settle disputes, including violence, but only as a last resort.
  • Moral Code: They have a clearly defined sense of honour and respect and adhere to a higher moral code than those around them; notably, this is why they always give the bad guy a chance to draw their weapon instead of killing them outright.
  • Highly Skilled: They demonstrate a high degree of proficiency in skills necessary for their survival, and one of those skills is almost always a competency with firearms.
  • Power of Speech: Like the Spartans and their legendary wit, western protagonists are sparing in the words that they use, and tend to be used as a last resort, like violence, and to much the same effect.
  • Active: In contrast to the more civilized people they meet along the way, they have no roots to speak of, and tend to live nomadic lifestyles.
  • Ability to Adapt: Notably, they are affected by their adventures, often deriving moral precepts from their situation.
While there are other characteristics that define the western genre, most of them are encapsulated in the figure of the western protagonist themselves. Arlen, like her spiritual predecessors, finds herself in a literal frontier, a border between the civilized and the uncivilized, a breeding ground populated in equal measure by the good, the bad, and the ugly. This literal frontier is almost always a metaphor for a moral frontier, a border between wrong and right. Though, like the actual frontier, that moral landscape is not clearly defined, and so drives our hero and the story forward. Arlen conforms in some way to all of these eight characteristics, but what makes The Bad Batch so engaging is the way that she diverges from the traditional expectations established by these tropes.

Isolation and Asexuality

Arlen is most definitely isolated. She spends a good chunk of the movie alone or nearly alone in the desert, and even in the community of Comfort she walks the streets with no friends or really any other obvious human connections. Even at a rave thrown by Comfort's leader, the Dream (a suitably sleazy Keanu Reeves), later in the film, Arlen partakes in the drugs and meanders among the other revelers in an almost trance-like state, eventually wandering out into the desert alone.

Though she is not portrayed as asexual, Arlen doesn't really have any kind of romantic connection with anybody for the bulk of the movie. However, she does develop a connection with Miami Man (Jason Mamoa), a member of the cannibal clan who carved her up for dinner earlier in the movie.

Here, The Bad Batch reverses the trajectory of the traditional western hero. Whereas the protagonist in a conventional western story ends up embracing their isolation, from which we get the classical image of the cowboy riding off into the sunset, Arlen ends up in a very different place. After rescuing the daughter of Miami Man from the clutches of the Dream and a life as an eventual member of his harem, she doesn't venture out on her own. Instead, the movie ends with Arlen, Miami Man, and his daughter Honey, sitting around a makeshift campfire, feasting on Honey's pet rabbit. It's not coincidence that the final imagery of the movie is specifically evocative of family. 

While the whole eating a child's pet thing may seem like kind of a downer, this final scene offers a glimmer of hope in an otherwise harsh and uncaring world. Arlen isn't looking to continue her existence of feeling alone even in a crowded rave; instead, she wants a human connection. She wants to belong. And more than that, she succeeds in a way that most western protagonists don't: she actively works to make a place for herself. 

Bill Paying Skills

The cowboy is to the six-shooter as a Jedi is to the lightsaber. Of all the skills that the western protagonist possesses, proficiency with guns is probably the most common and recognizable. After all, the cowboy is a figure of the frontier, someplace just on the cusp of civilization, where laws exist but not the social infrastructure to enforce them. The frontier is a place where people must sometimes rely on themselves to enact justice, so guns are given special significance as tools to solve otherwise unsolvable disputes.

Here, Arlen diverges quite a bit from the typical western protagonist. Although her weapon of choice is, unsurprisingly, a revolver - the weapon of choice for heroes of the old west - she isn't portrayed as  a maverick when it comes to firearms. She seems comfortable enough brandishing a gun, and at least on one occasion hits her target (much to her own horror), but the story doesn't revolve around her expert skills with a firearm.

It does, however, focus on her cleverness and tenacity. After having been captured by the tribe of cannibal bodybuilders camped out in a graveyard for airplanes, Arlen finds herself down one arm and one leg. Most people in this situation would likely abandon any hope of survival let alone escape. After all, if one were to find oneself initially overpowered by a group of antagonists with one's body completely intact, the odds of fighting back in any meaningful way go down dramatically in the absence of two out of four limbs.

Arlen, on the other hand, does not give up so easily. While waiting in her makeshift cell to see what kind of fresh hell awaits her, she devises a plan to hasten her freedom. By smearing herself in her own shit, she forces her captors to wash her down before they can safely feast on her any further. This gives her the opening she needs to overpower and incapacitate the cannibal put in charge of her, and escape into the desert, making use of a scavenged skateboard to speed her on her way. In the land of the quick and the dead, the clever always thrive.

Now, under most circumstances, I would never argue that smearing your own feces all over yourself was in any way a good idea. But in Arlen's case, it was kind of genius. Using the only tool at her disposal, which was literally a pile of shit, and then exploiting the overconfidence of her captors to escape from a seemingly impossible situation is the mark of true ingenuity.

The Power of Speech Compels You

Like most western protagonists, Arlen's conversational skills can best be described as laconic. She doesn't speak often, and when she does, it's typically for utilitarian reasons. Arlen does, however, have the ability typical of most western heroes to cut right to the heart of the matter. Near the end of the film, as she's trying to convince Miami Man to "hang out" instead of rejoining his cannibalistic tribe, she effectively argues against the kind of fatalism that drives not just her hulking companion but all of the residents of The Bad Batch's desert hellscape. Arlen asks him a rhetorical question:

"What if all these things that happened to us happened to us so the next things that gonna happen to us can happen to us?"

There's something profound in such a simple utterance. She's not merely restating the old cliché that "everything happens for a reason." In fact, quite the opposite. Arlen is positing a world in which we build on what came before to create something new. It's a rejection of the view that Miami Man initially tells her that "You don't know what reality is, you only know what you are." He sees himself as part of an unbreakable system, whose fundamental programming was eat or be eaten (quite literally in his case). 

Arlen, however, presents the case for change. That the events that we've been allowed to experience, or had to endure, don't lock us into a single, specific, pre-determined path. Rather, they collectively present an opportunity to learn and do better in the future. Not only is she able to convince Miami Man and Honey to stay and "hang out," the final scene where they're sitting around a campfire and eating a rabbit instead of a person provides a glimmer of hope that, like Arlen suggest, people are able to learn from their pasts to build a better future. Hopefully, a future with a lot less murder, dismemberment, and eating people.

Vigilantism, Moral Code, and Adaptation

Violence, and particularly the violence done by Arlen, is central to the main themes of the movie, and in conjunction with how it's confined by a strict moral code, is actually perhaps the most significant western trope to consider. When she's first exiled to the fenced-off section of Texas desert for crimes that the audience is never told of, she is almost immediately abducted and brought to a community of bodybuilding cannibals who seem to have a proclivity for EDM. There, they chop off her arm and leg (an obvious tongue-in-cheek literal interpretation of the old saying about the steep cost one must sometimes pay, a fact later explicitly pointed out by the Dream), though she's able to mount her daring, if somewhat disgusting, escape, relying on true grit and her own feces in equal measure.

Much later, after having been rescued by a desert hermit (a nearly unrecognizable Jim Carrey in an incredible and entirely wordless role) and taken to Comfort, Arlen decides one day to venture back into the desert intent on bloody revenge, come hell or high water. Armed with a six-shooter, an obvious connection to the western genre as the weapon of choice for nearly every cowboy and cowgirl in every western story ever, she heads out without any water or supplies of any type. So consumed is Arlen with revenge that she imagines her expedition as most likely a one-way trip. Down one arm and fitted with a prosthetic leg, speed is not her ally, and she would likely have no better luck outrunning any potential pursuers than she did when she still had all of her limbs in tact. It's also worth noting that the noises her prosthetic leg make as she walks are reminiscent of the sound one would expect from the spurs of a cowboy's boot.

Shortly after she sets out into the desert, she comes across a trash heap, where Honey and her mother, Maria, are sorting through the discarded scraps from the society that also discarded them for anything of value. Fuelled by a righteous anger that many of us in the audience no doubt had no trouble identifying with, especially after seeing this type of scenario play out in so many movies and television shows, Arlen murders Maria, shooting her in the head. In a typical western (or Hollywood movie in general), this might play out as a triumphant, if grim, moment, a sort of doing-what-must-be-done kind of frontier justice. 

In a totally real essay titled "Why The Bad Batch is one of the best films of 2017", director Scott Derrickson breaks down the emotional and thematic significance of Arlen's reaction to her killing of Maria: 

"Arlen's close-up reaction displays more than shock or disillusionment. Arlen not only feels no vengeful satisfaction, but her confusion and vacant disorientation are so palpable, it’s as if we watch Arlen's soul leave her own body. This killing was an evil act, and Arlen immediately knows it. As she watches little Honey try in vain to wake up her dead mom, Arlen begins to reckon with the horrific reality that a killing like this can never be undone."

This sobering inversion of expectations is, as Derrickson argues, thematically central to The Bad Batch. It's also the most stark subversion of the tropes of western storytelling. Arlen doles out her frontier justice, but instead of feeling some sense of satisfaction, she regrets what she's done. Instead of seeing violence as any sort of solution, it's portrayed through Arlen's eyes as a fundamentally destructive and dehumanizing force. 

It's also at this point, when Arlen realizes what it means to take a life, and the true weight that such an act has, perhaps best summed up by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven: "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he's got and all he's ever gonna have."

This is when we first start to see Arlen's moral code beginning to truly take shape. We're not told why she's exiled in the first place, but up until the killing of Maria at the trash heap, she seems rather focused on herself. She doesn't seem particularly social, with no friends in Comfort to speak of, and when she decides to head back out into the desert, it's to seek out justice for what she personally lost, and not in service of some higher ideal or justice for another. But when she realizes that the true cost of revenge is far more than even the arm and leg she had already paid, she decides to walk another path. She immediately takes the child, Honey, under her wing, bringing her back to the relative safety of the community of Comfort. She also, notably, from that point forward never kills anyone ever again, taking up her gun only for the purpose of threatening violence to essentially bluff her way through a tense situation near the end of the movie.

Arlen's sense of duty to Honey drives the second half of the film. She takes the child into her home, buys her a pet rabbit (that will eventually serve as their family meal at the end of the film), and begins to care for her. Unfortunately, during one of Comfort's many raves, Arlen makes the same mistake so many parents do: she gets high, loses her child, and wanders out into the wilderness, staring up into stars and rambling incoherently to no one in particular about their place in the universe while totally tripping balls.

When she finally comes to, she finds herself at the whim of Miami Man, who she discovers is Honey's father. Under threat of death, he sends her on a mission to Comfort to find his missing daughter, unaware that Arlen was the one who had killed his wife in the first place (between that and the whole cannibalism thing, it might have made an awkward situation even more awkwarder).

Arlen does return to comfort, infiltrating the Dream's mansion where he lives a life of relative luxury with his harem of very devoted and very pregnant young women, where she discovers Honey is being held. This is especially notable because she's not mounting a rescue operation because of Miami Man's threat of (likely grizzly and well-seasoned) death if she doesn't succeed, as he's unable to enforce it within the city limits of Comfort. 

When the Dream asks Arlen what she really wants during her interview to join his entourage, she initially tells him she wishes for a time machine so she could back and change what had happened to her. He pushes back on this response, and Arlen gives him an answer that sums up her new outlook on life (an answer also dripping with exactly the kind of dramatic irony one might expect from a western protagonist):

"I want to be the solution to something."

This is her newly defined moral code. Instead of perpetuating the status quo and cycles of violence, Arlen wants to do something meaningful. Instead of doling out death, she aims to try and preserve life. Instead of wallowing in despair, she sees the possibility to hope for something better.

And in total contrast to the typical western protagonist, she accomplishes her mission of rescuing Honey without killing anyone. Arlen smuggles her gun into the Dream's home in a secret compartment in her prosthetic leg (as one will), using it as leverage to get the girl back and escape from Comfort back into the desert, delivering her back to her father. Without spilling a single drop of blood or boosting the local tombstone business, she not only saves the day, but she sets Miami Man and Honey on a new path, opening up new possibilities for the pair. She makes amends for her violent past not with more violence.

Instead, she employs tools that can be equally as powerful: compassion, empathy, and mercy.

When violence becomes the norm, a simple act of compassion can become truly subversive. One could only hope that the rest of us follow Arlen's example and accomplish even one small act of subversion on a daily basis.

The Verdict

The Bad Batch is a must-see film, no matter the genre. With an incredibly innovative story; incredible performances from Suki Waterhouse, Jason Mamoa, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, and a surprise appearance from an unrecognizable Jim Carrey; and filmed on a backdrop of real locations as beautiful as they are dangerous, this is a must see movie for any lovers of film out there. As soon as you get the chance, stream this movie or, for a few dollars more, own it on Blu-ray. The Bad Batch is a 9.5/10 = One Cannibal's Head Soaking up the Desert Sun as It Does One More Set of Deadlifts


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