Near The Bad Batch's final moments, Suki Waterhouse's Arlen is asked what it is that she actually wants to be. Set in a part of the (future) United States where exiles are sent to live without citizenship or protection from the law, much of The Bad Batch focuses on how we define ourselves, and how short the distance is between those definitions when everything else is all but stripped away. The problem, though, is that Arlen might very well be the character who has defined herself least within the world of the film, to the point where an audience member wouldn't be blamed for not having any idea what she's going to say in response to such an important question. By the time it's asked of her, her answer could swerve in just about any direction, as Arlen's journey through The Bad Batch is a mess of poorly-defined motivation, odd choices, and stylistic tangents that undermine the film's already-thin thematic subtext (maybe we're ALL the bad batch, when it really comes down to it!).
The Bad Batch certainly starts on a series of interesting notes, and its insistence on the barest of expositional beats is actually one of the film's greater strengths. We don't need to know everything about where or why this part of the world exists; all we need are the rules, which are quickly and efficiently doled out in a mostly wordless opening act. Arlen is banished to an outlying Texas wasteland that can basically be described as unincorporated USA. She's almost immediately set upon and relieved of an arm and leg by a community of bodybuilding cannibals, and director Ana Lily Amirpour shoots these so-called "Bridge People" with lingering frames, passing slowly over rippling muscles and oiled backs, American flags and clanking barbells like it's an early workout scene in a Reagan-era action film.
One of Amirpour's most distinctive strengths is her ability to smartly dip quills into the more interesting aspects of 1980s and 1990s popular culture, and The Bad Batch showcases these skills with absolute aplomb. Amirpour's Texas desert is an endless and neon-soaked stretch of sand, and the time the camera spends languidly tracking along its expanses would be so much more impressive if they didn't actively work to dampen the film's sense of inertia.
After making her escape from the Bridge People, Arlen makes her way to another community known as Comfort. Comfort being a place where people aren't inclined to eat each other, Arlen is allowed to settle in and live a life of some normality, right up until she decides to go out and exact some random desert justice on some Bridge People. Without getting into spoilers, the film's inciting incident is another example of how The Bad Batch misses opportunities to imbue its characters with a crucial amount of depth. Instead of showing who Arlen is or who she wants to be, this moment instead reveals her to be full of attitude for the sake of attitude — a problem that seems to be echoed throughout movie's runtime. Arlen eventually links up with Jason Momoa's Miami Man (making his way through the film with an incredibly ill-advised Puerto Rican accent) and the two engage on a rescue mission of sorts, searching to find Miami Man's daughter after Arlen, for some reason, takes on the role of ersatz mother figure.
At no point do we get a clear understanding of who Arlen is, where she's been, or what it is she's actually out to accomplish. The film never lets us understand exactly what it is she wants to be or become, and as such makes its way towards and ending that's as frustrating as it is abrupt. The Bad Batch seems to be aiming for the nontraditional, almost rambling and amorphous structure of a film like No Country for Old Men (another film about savagery and the different possible responses to it), but lacks the ability to actually to wrap itself up in a way that manages to say anything significant about what just happened over the course of the last two hours.
Weighed down by distracting stunt casting (Jim Carrey shows up in yet another interesting turn, Giovanni Ribisi's screentime could have been relegated to literally anybody else, Keanu Reeves makes you wonder whether it took one day or two for him to shoot all his scenes) and hobbled by its own confused thematics, The Bad Batch is a fine example of style over substance. It's incredible to look at — Momoa and Waterhouse are often made small, shot against the sweeping neon purples and oranges of the Texas desert — but these visuals fail to work in tandem with the action, and wind up failing to inform the story in a truly meaningful way. The result is an exciting and attractive exercise in stylism, but it's one that might leave you hungry for something just a little bit more substantial.