The scariest thing I saw at the inaugural Overlook Film Festival, which features horror cinema from around the world, was a breathtakingly disturbing dystopian vision—all the more horrifying for its plausibility in the American present. The Bad Batch, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, creator of the ominous revisionist vampire western noir A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, is the first vision any artist has offered of what life might look like at the end of Donald Trump's second term.
Speaking by phone from San Francisco, Amirpour tells me that while she appreciates interest in the film, she often finds the process of discussing her work counterintuitive. "I'm good at interacting with the human race when there's a sensible way to do it," she says. "But making a film is that way for me. My work, as a filmmaker, is to make the film, which is already done. I think that's what I mean when I say counterintuitive. I might actually be good at it, too, sometimes. It's kind of like I'm just doing [interviews] to help—like in the world we live in—a very, very strange, unusual, off-the-beaten-path film."
How off the beaten path? Well...
The Bad Batch is set in an arid, open-air prison colony separated from America by a chain-link fence (I guess they couldn't afford a wall, after all). When a young prisoner named Arlen—a member of the group that gives the film its title—is dropped off with only a bottle of water and a sandwich, we see a sign that reads "WARNING: Beyond this fence is no longer the territory of Texas. That hereafter no person within the territory beyond this fence is a resident of the United States of America or shall be acknowledged, recognized, or governed by the laws and governing bodies therein. Good luck."
But Arlen's bad luck has only just begun. She soon learns what it means to truly be cast out from the rule of law or the acknowledgement of America's governing bodies, coming up against grotesque violence, body mutilation, a vacuous messiah figure, murder for sport, murder for survival, and, oh yeah, actual cannibalism.
The Bad Batch is about humankind at the point of either evolution or extinction. It's also about human beings being forced to eat one another. We're accustomed to seeing cannibalism portrayed as a sort of rarefied, satirical invention—Hannibal Lecter does it to express his superiority, Beatrice Dalle's character in Trouble Every Day does it because she has a disease that director Claire Denis associates with female lust, zombies do it because they're zombies. The people in The Bad Batch do it because there's simply no other food available to them.
"When I think of the vicious behavior [of some of the characters]," says Amirpour, "it's so physically brutal and in your face. But I see people right now in the world tear each other to pieces for reasons much less easy to understand than hunger."
Throughout Arlen's desperate journey, she—and we along with her—is forced to discover new terms for human empathy, which emerges as not just a character builder, but a biological imperative. Though it may seem comforting to think of it as a wild, postapocalyptic sci-fi horror allegory, the film's motor is startlingly literal.
The survival economy within the landscape of its wall-less prison—with its equal measures of savagery and compassion, love and indifference, tribalism and anarchy—is a perfectly logical extension of the weaponized divisiveness that prevails in the here and now. The old TV show Max Headroom was set "20 minutes into the future." The Bad Batch feels a lot more immediate than that.
"It's funny to me when people say [the film] is the future or a dystopia," says Amirpour, "as though it's not something that's happening right now. It's like 'postapocalyptic'? Actually it's kind of pre-apocalyptic. You've never been to Tent City on Skid Row [in downtown Los Angeles], the largest population of homeless people in the United States? I just think some people do a really good job of keeping in their comfort."
But as lamentable as that is, isn't it also a form of self-preservation?
"Oh, totally," Amirpour laughs. "You totally have to find it. We need to find some small corner of peace and feel good and have a laugh. You know? You only get one spin around the rock... Sometimes I do just want to escape for two hours in a story where good and bad are very clearly delineated and we can all just root for the good guy and get that satisfaction. I do love that and need that. Sometimes you can't think that hard and not have the easy answers. We all have the propensity for either extreme, and we all have a reason why we believe what we believe in life. Everyone is right in this world—that's why it's so fucked up. Because you're right, whoever you are, what you believe is right because you're you. So here we are."
The Bad Batch's most noteworthy characteristic is its genuine philosophical quandary about the state of humanity in a fractious age. If you've looked at the news in the past few years and wondered, "What fucking world am I living in?" Amirpour's film provides a very upsetting answer that rings true in the same way a nightmare does. And as the traditional systems of maintaining order continue to erode in waking life, visions like hers may not be comforting, but they do provide a certain clarity.
"Systems of politics, culture, race, economic things—they feel like Russian nesting dolls to me now," says Amirpour. "The thing that's difficult for me is understanding the other side. That's what I feel like people are bad at."
Even when, and especially when, the other side's ideas are repugnant and wrong. We see nearly every character in The Bad Batch perform acts of such unimaginable monstrosity that if you saw them in real life, you'd run screaming. But because of the alchemy that occurs in narrative filmmaking, and Amirpour's determination not to look away, the overarching horror of their situation allows them to become, if not sympathetic, then at least recognizably human. Like you. Again, empathy as biological imperative. Like one of those dark 3 a.m. moments when you fear that the only way we're going to survive is by learning how to genuinely feel for Jeff Sessions.
"Yes, exactly," says Amirpour. "And how do you do that in cinema and storytelling? You twist things to narrative extremes."
But at the end of those extremes, the high-art aesthetics, the familiar genre tropes from Mad Max to Battle Royale to Lawrence of Arabia, and the violence, depravity, and ambiguity that binds it all together, The Bad Batch ends on a note of fragile, fractured optimism that forces you to reconsider everything you've just seen. It may only be a tiny, dim glimmer of hope, but in a hopeless world, it feels like grace.
"Yeah, I feel that," says Amirpour. "I do. If you're asking me am I an optimistic person, I don't know. But you go on, you know? That's probably the most inspiring thing about us as people: We go through all this heinous shit all the time, but we do go on."