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The Brown Bunny

Is it possible to make good films about the sad lives and times of traumatized people? Yes, of course, but only if those films have something original to say about the nature of despair and the way individuals cope with it. Otherwise you just end up with pointless gloom and that basically sums up Brown Bunny. This wannabe deep-thinking movie quickly became infamous for its explicit blow-job scene instead of its artistic aspirations, but it doesn’t really qualify as high-class porn either because the entire first hour presents nothing but a road trip.

Motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo, also the writer and director) is driving from the east to the west coast to see his girlfriend, Daisy (Chloe Sevigny) who seems to be estranged from him. “Seems to be” because the details of their relationship are never explained, but discerning viewers might gather that something’s wrong since he makes sporadic overtures to other women, and is constantly on the verge of tears. Hmmm. What exactly happened with Daisy isn’t clarified until almost the end and while it can be interesting to work backwards through a story (think Memento) Bud’s desultory trip through the bowels of America’s freeway system is waaay too long.

Dialogue is minimal to say the least. When Bud asks a young woman named Violet (Anna Vareschi) (“Daisy” “Violet” are flowers and “Clay” is soil; surely the names are significant but damned if I know why) to join him on the road he says “Please” then pauses. He’s presumably pondering a plausible explanation to give her about why he’s so desperate for company, but he just ends up repeating his supplication, twice. “Please. Please.” This doesn’t give an audience much to work with in terms of connecting with the character.

In fact, poor Bud never seems like a fully developed character and that’s a big problem because the whole point of the film is to encourage empathy for his unbearable misery and remorse. My moderate curiosity about why he was so wretched kept me watching through the limp travel sequences but I never felt much for him.In a typical road trip cliché, the hero’s journey across the country symbolizes his psychological state especially when he enters wide, flat, isolated deserts. It’s been done many times before but I guess Gallo figured that it always works; the American west is dependably photogenic and stark.

And then there’s The Blowjob. It is, sad to say, the only reason anyone has noticed this film – just check out the reviews of the original theatrical release. Bud eventually arrives in LA and locates his girl, who then sucks him in explicit full-profile while he rants about other men she’s serviced. Except for the participants’ obvious unhappiness there’s nothing unusual about the fellatio but the question is: Why? Why is the full penis on display? Does Gallo want to stir up controversy? Does he want to make a cinematic statement about realism? Who knows – maybe he’s just a guy who’s really proud of his dick, or maybe he just thinks it’s really cool that Daisy swallows. In any case, some large chain stores won’t stock this movie but if they’ve categorized it as porn they’re way off track because the sex emphasizes the characters’ misery rather than any titillation.

Bud and Daisy finally discuss the event that triggered his breakdown but their revelation has a dream sequence quality: I don’t want to give away too much of the story but there’s a hint of surrealism to the lovers’ emotional confrontation that’s out of character with the preceding, flatly realistic film. Nevertheless, what happened is quite shocking (largely because of Sevigny’s superbly understated acting; she’s a consistently underrated performer), but shocking isn’t the same thing as gut-wrenching and that’s what the revelation needs to be because it’s the climax of the film. It’s infuriating because the meandering Bunny almost, but not quite, comes together at that point and gels into something emotionally raw and true. Bud, unfortunately, was never established as a viable person during the lengthy, silent driving sequences so his love for Daisy seems abstract and I felt detached, both from the horrifying trauma that destroyed it, and from him. Vincent Gallo (Buffalo ‘66) has attempted to expose the depths of despondency, but doesn’t quite make it out of the shallow end. The DVD is shot in Widescreen (1.66:1) and Gallo, as befitting his indie film-maker status, often goes for low-budget, cinema verite visual effects. These include lots of long shots of Clay driving through landscapes with authentically smoggy skies and much of the film is just plain grainy – maybe to reflect our hero’s murky day-to-day existence (hopefully it’s on purpose and not just a result of incompetence). My favorite visual touch, however, is the way scenery is filmed through the bug-splattered windshield of Clay’s vehicle. Some people might not like it but I think windshield speckles accurately capture the grungy feel of boring road trips.

The sound is perfectly respectable Dolby Digital 5.0 although sound isn’t really critical for this film. Dialogue is sparse and there’s only an intermittent soundtrack consisting of bluesy, jazzy stuff with occasional oldie (but not necessarily goodie) pop songs, including a ballad by that 70’s yuckster, Gordon Lightfoot! Maybe the Lightfoot sample can be excused (or at least get some points for being an unusually quirky choice) but it’s harder to forgive the fact that the characters, when they do decide to speak, murmur their lines in barely audible tones. I had the volume turned up higher on this DVD than on anything else I’ve ever seen – and I see a lot of movies. I do like the fact that there are long sequences of with no background music at all. Too many films rely on music to cue in the audience on the emotions they’re supposed to be feeling; it becomes a cheap, easy way out for lazy filmmaking.

As for Special Features, there aren’t any to speak of although there should be because this Bunny cries out desperately for Director Commentary. Inquiring minds want to know why we need to see the writer/director/star’s entire penis. I think it’s very ordinary looking but maybe I’m missing something! I would also love to hear co-star Chloe Sevigny interviewed about what it’s like to be a known as a famous fellatio babe. The only real extras are two trailers. One is blink-and-you-miss-it brief while the second gives away some critical plot developments so I can’t imagine it was shown in theaters. There are no previews and that’s always good, but I suppose that the viewing public will just have to hold their questions for some real bonus materials when the inevitable Special Edition Director’s Cut DVD is issued.