Warning: plot spoilers ahead.
Watching Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny again, as a DVD on a monitor rather than in a clammy theater sparsely populated by shifting-in-their-seats movie critics, you might be tempted to rethink it. Partly because it remains a stubbornly disengaging film, daring you to dislike it. Partly because its arrival on DVD has been met with so little attention, at least compared to the public outrage expressed by Roger Ebert as he walked out of an early screening of the film at Cannes. Though Ebert then declared the film, which ran 118 minutes, “the worst film in the history of the Festival,” he changed his thinking when writing about a second cut he saw later. His review of that 93-miunute version asserts that “Gallo’s editing has set free the good film inside.”
Though Sony’s DVD does not, as Ebert suggested it should (for instructional reasons), include the longer version, it does grant a chance to see again the infamous blow job by Chloë Sevigny, as well as the long takes of Gallo’s Bud Clay driving cross country to discover, however pathetically and however self-obsessively, that the love of his life is dead, owing to his neglect and blindness and anger. What remains remarkable about the film, however, is its upfront conservatism. While it probably means to shock, to show something that has not quite appeared on screen before, it also harbors a deeply traditional sensibility. It’s about a romance gone wrong, a story framed from one side, and deeply, wretchedly guilty about his mistake.
The bulk of the film is comprised of Bud’s journey home, from the east coast where he’s been racing motorbikes, to Los Angeles. He first appears in extreme a long, aggressively anonymous shot, on his bike, circling a New Hampshire racetrack again and again and again, the faint buzz of the engines coming in and out of the soundtrack, which occasionally lapses into silence. The image is lonely and unexciting (though the fast-cut, close-up version would undoubtedly be thrilling): it’s a portrait of repetition and tedium, Bud’s speeding along to nowhere.
In the next minute he loads his Honda RS250 into his van and starts driving west. Aside from a brief stopover with Mrs. Lemon (Mary Morasky), the film remains on the road until Bud arrives in LA; she’s the owner of the titular brown bunny, or rather, she’s keeping it for her daughter Daisy (Sevigny), whom Bud claims to know from childhood and has since lived with in L.A. According to Bud, Daisy’s the girl he’s on his way to see again, though Mrs. Lemon has no knowledge of him and he has precious little to say about her daughter.
En route to Daisy, Bud pauses on the road to talk to other girls named after flowers (his name being “Bud Clay” suggests he’s their potential source of growth, or maybe not). He knows their names because each conveniently wears some sort of marker, a shirt tag for the gas station attendant, Violet (Anna Vareschi), a necklace for a young prostitute named Rose (Elizabeth Blake). This is only one detail that argues for the film as broadly conceived metaphor, rather than any sort of “realistic” narrative, or perhaps a fantasy belonging to and only making sense to Bud: it emerges from him, it remains his, inaccessible to other interpreters.
Bud’s approach toward each girl or woman is timid and aggressive at the same time, both representative and deviant. When Bud asks Violet—whom he has never met—to travel to California with him, she laughs at first. “I don’t know you,” she protests. He persists, “Please come with me. Please,” in a tone so childish, earnest, and feeble that she agrees. Despondent and restless, he drives Violet to her parents’ home to pick up her clothes; after they share a tender kiss in his front seat, she heads inside and, after a beat, he drives off, unable to commit.
Is he afraid? An asshole straight-up? Unstable and creepy? It’s hard to guess based on his perpetually disheveled and slightly unhinged demeanor, and he’s not talking. It’s not so much that he’s irresistible or seductive, though the girls’ willingness to go along with him might make it seem as if, in his story, he’s the studly center. For the rest of the film, essentially, you’re riding with him, watching highway signs, suburban driveways, motels and strip malls, peeping through his windshield as bugs splat against it. It’s not so much a point of view as it’s a lack of direction: the road goes on. By the time Bud pauses at a truck stop to sit at picnic table with Lilly (Cheryl Tiegs)—her pocketbook marked with her name—you’re inclined to think he’s incapable of coherent speech. And so he shows you what that might look like, not speaking a word with Lilly, but only nuzzling, kissing, embracing her, until he gets up to go, leaving her at the table, alone again.
In LA, he first tends to his bike and then checks into a motel, after leaving a note at Daisy’s house, alerting her to his return and his new location. When she does appear, it becomes apparent that he’s left her because she’s a junkie: she leaves the room several times to smoke crack in the bathroom, and he pretends not to know. Following, she seduces him and he lets her, culminating in the fellatio scene that had people calling the film pornography and filth. But, if it’s surprising to see Gallo’s actual penis and Sevigny’s actual act, it’s also thematically coherent. For the first time, in fact, The Brown Bunny makes its point abundantly clear.
The camera focuses closely on Bud once, post-climax, he curls up on the bed. Angry at Daisy, he calls her names, and insists that he can’t trust her any more, because she’s been with “other boys.” As a flashback reveals, he left her at a party when she was high, where she ended up raped and eventually, dead, asphyxiated by her own vomit. This changes everything that came before, in a startling and frankly innovative way. It is his awful, ugly fantasy, vengeful and cheerless, and invites you to dislike Bud (and perhaps Gallo) with a newfound urgency. He’s the most heinous sort of “conservative,” monstrous in his judgments and condemnations, unable to budge from his preconceptions. That he has reasons—primarily rage, fear, and guilt—doesn’t excuse his behavior or his ugliness. At the same time, Bud’s sadness and sense of responsibility make him believe himself a victim, whether of his own moral tyranny or his love of an indecent woman.
This aspect of the film invites judgment, and makes you pay for making it. But the realization that Daisy is dead—a figment of Bud’s imagination—also breaks open the movie in another, more provocative way, concerning the conventional distinctions between fiction and reality. If video pornography is supposed to be a “real” sex act, staged to solicit viewers’ arousal, this is makes any such response (if you’ve had one to the previous scene) all kinds of costly—emotionally and intellectually. It begs the question, how does moral judgment come to hinge on what’s “real,” when it can be so easily faked, or more complexly, be so utterly subjective?