Warning: plot spoilers ahead.
It was never my intention to make a pretentious film, a self-indulgent film, a useless film, an unengaging film
— Vincent Gallo
We might only imagine how peeved some Republicans are that Vincent Gallo has named himself one of them. The former Calvin Klein model and recent guest star in Jay-Z and Mark Romanek’s music video, “99 Problems,” made something of a hubbub in May when his second film, The Brown Bunny, screened at Cannes, to catcalls and walkouts, and Roger Ebert’s much-quoted declaration that it was the “worst film in the history of the festival.”
Now the film is in theaters, reedited in such a way that even Ebert has granted it some artistic merit, and even come round to half-promoting it. Even with its most egregious scenes cut back, if not out (Ebert counts among these lengthy traveling on the road scenes, as well as the infamous blow job scene at film’s end), The Brown Bunny feels like a curiously long 93 minutes. And it is still a little pretentious, no matter Gallo’s good intentions and efforts to correct its excesses. What’s most 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 (the girl, has precious little chance to shape her part of the narrative), and deeply, wretchedly guilty about what goes wrong.
The bulk of the film is comprised of Bud Clay’s (Gallo) journey home, from the east coast to Los Angeles. A motorcycle racer, he first appears in extreme long 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. The image is lonely and unexciting from a distance (though the fast-cut, close-up version would undoubtedly be thrilling): repetition and tedium, speeding along to nowhere.
Crewless, Bud loads up 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 (Chloë Sevigny), whom Bud claims to know from childhood and has since lived with in LA. Daisy is supposedly the girl he’s on his way to see again, though Mrs. Lemon has no knowledge of Bud, and he has little to say about her daughter.
Along the road, Bud stops to talk to girls named after flowers (his name being Bud Clay suggests he’s their potential source of growth and emergence). 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 grows from him, it remains his, inaccessible to other interpreters (you might also consider the Mrs. Lemon episode an indication that Bud’s story is his own, unavailable to other characters).
Bud’s approach toward each girl or woman he meets is oddly timid and aggressive at the same time. 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. He’s not unattractive, but neither is he a trustworthy sort. 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? 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, looking so sad and generous that she breaks your heart) — 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 big-dealio 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. (And stop reading here, if you don’t want to know the ending.)
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 a monster, the most heinous sort of “conservative,” in the sense that he’s judged and condemned his promiscuous, drug-addicted, disappointing woman. At the same time, it reaffirms Bud’s sadness and sense of responsibility, making him again a sort of 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?