Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny”: A Road Movie Stuck in the Wrong Gear
by Peter Brunette
No one can say that Vincent Gallo isn’t an auteur. One of the very first titles in the credit sequence of his new film, “The Brown Bunny,” proudly proclaims that it was written, directed, edited, and produced by him. And of course he’s also its star and virtually the sole focus of the camera’s relentlessly loving gaze throughout. And lest any viewer still not get it, the final credits reveal that Gallo was also the film’s director of photography, production designer, and camera operator. Is there any thing that this man cannot do? Well, for starters, he seems here, at least, to be unable to make a film that anyone in his or her right mind would actually pay to see. The ego strokes he got for his previous directorial effort, “Buffalo 66,” seem to have seriously warped his judgment. The result, in “The Brown Bunny,” is one of the most profoundly egomaniacal and obnoxious films in the history of American independent cinema. During its press screening here in the Cannes competition, the film was openly laughed at throughout, and at its conclusion was met with the loudest round of boos I’ve heard in my 12 years attending this festival.
Gallo plays a motorcycle racer named Bud Clay. The film begins with a race in New Hampshire and then follows Bud across the country to his next race, in Southern California. As we watch Bud pump gas, drive, stop to check his van, drive, visit a pet shop, drive, kiss an anonymous girl (Cheryl Tiegs) at a roadside shelter, drive, wash his van, drive, race his motorcycle across the Bonneville salt flats, drive, and then talk to hookers in southern California (without picking any up), we get the feeling that the five-day trip is taking place in real time. There is a short dream sequence that includes Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), apparently his former girlfriend. She is on the back of his bicycle and she has her hand on his penis. He looks happy. Later, there is a flashback to another happy moment with Daisy. We begin to suspect that something is amiss in his life. He picks up a girl at a gas station in New Hampshire, promising to take her to California with him, then abandons her. He also abandons the roadside girl played by Tiegs. In California, he chats with prostitutes but does not take them up on their offers. He is apparently a wounded soul, but until the last 10 minutes of the movie, we haven’t the slightest idea why.
One gets the impression that this empty trajectory was meant by Gallo to be some profound meditation on America. It is not. The brown bunny also seems meant to be symbolic, perhaps of an earlier, more innocent time in Bud’s life. But this doesn’t work either, especially when it’s baldly and clumsily restated at the very end of the film. Furthermore, many of the interminable driving sequences are accompanied by perky, celebratory songs by the likes of Ted Curson, Jeff Alexander, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jackson C. Frank, that clash with the film’s prevailing mood of utter depression.
The casual observer may think that every single aesthetic aspect of this film is mistaken, but this is not true. The many deliberately misframed, out-of-focus shots through the dirty windows of Bud’s van occasionally produce, perhaps by accident, a momentary shot with a haunting effect of otherworldliness. There is an early, promising scene around a kitchen table, where Bud is visiting Daisy’s dysfunctional family. It’s so awkward that it’s almost profound. Alas, this too seems in retrospect to have been completely accidental.
Anyone who has had heard anything about this film in advance will know that it contains a celebrated scene of fellatio. This occurs in the last five minutes and, along with a big surprise in the so-called plot and a momentary transcendence of the catatonia the rest of the film is so deeply mired in, does indeed give “The Brown Bunny” whatever interest it contains. However, it’s far from adequate recompense for the previous 100 minutes of torture. If this is what intrigues you, though, you’d be well advised to save your money and just go out and rent a nice, wholesome porn video instead.