The title of “The Bad Batch,” Ana Lily Amirpour’s arid and feverish new movie, refers to the assorted undesirables who have been exiled by the U.S. government to a vast and barely habitable stretch of Texas wasteland. Under a merciless sun, a sullen new arrival named Arlen (the British actress Suki Waterhouse) is promptly captured by a gang of iron-pumping cannibals who tie her up, drug her and divest her of an arm and a leg.
Arlen escapes, barely, and finds her way to a makeshift town of losers and drifters, noodle carts and shipping containers laughably known as Comfort. Ruled over by a self-styled messiah/drug dealer/harem-keeper known as the Dream (Keanu Reeves), Comfort is a slight improvement on Arlen’s previous situation. But it’s still no country for old men or young women — or, for that matter, a little girl named Honey (Jayda Fink) and her bunny rabbit, both token symbols of innocence in this dust-choked dystopia.
Honey’s father is a towering slab of muscle named Miami Man, a reference to his Cuban expatriate roots that is helpfully tattooed across his impossibly bulked-up chest. He’s played by Jason Momoa, the smoldering Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo on “Game of Thrones” who will play Aquaman in the forthcoming DC Comics movies. Framed here against staggering desert vistas, Momoa is not so much man as monolith, as slab-like and expressively inarticulate as the obelisk in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Any Stanley Kubrick influence is otherwise absent from “The Bad Batch,” a marriage of grindhouse horror and acid western that feels conceived under the spell of Sergio Leone, Alejandro Jodorowsky, George Miller and Quentin Tarantino. It’s the second feature film written and directed by Amirpour; her justly acclaimed 2014 debut, the Iranian vampire thriller “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” established her as a formalist of striking confidence.
The visual and sonic acumen of that film is also evident in “The Bad Batch,” from its killer electronic soundtrack to the shimmering, sun-blasted widescreen images captured by the cinematographer Lyle Vincent. (Texas is played, sensationally, by the squatter community of Slab City, Calif.) The movie is a spellbinding physical object, a thing of ramshackle buildings and endless horizons, that begs to be seen on the big screen if at all.
But here Amirpour’s stylistic flair must work overtime to fill the gaps in an increasingly patchy and wayward narrative. Pauses and longueurs can be effective, particularly in a setting where a measure of tedium comes with the wide-open terrain, but the deliberation of the pacing is not warranted by the film’s thin, circuitous story.
Punctuating its long stretches of desert-wandering indolence with quick, brutal spasms of violence, “The Bad Batch” eventually coalesces around the tenuous bond that forms between Arlen, armed with a pistol and a prosthetic leg, and Miami Man, who’s handy with a cleaver and other sharp objects. Their mission is to find and rescue Honey, a familiar if effective point of entry into an unflattering mirror on America, in all its pointless savagery, sexual exploitation, class oppression and rapacious capitalism run amok.
Yeah, I don’t entirely buy it, either. As a politically barbed fantasy, “The Bad Batch” is intriguing but facile; as a bid for cult-classic status, it’s strained and self-conscious (though it is fun to see Reeves pimping and Jim Carrey slumming as a mute vagrant). Amirpour has vision to burn, and inside this not-so-bad batch of splendid atmospherics and half-baked ideas is a leaner, sharper movie trying to chew its way out.
‘The Bad Batch’
Rating: R, for violence, language, some drug content and brief nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood