There are probably two types of person who will watch Vincent Gallo’s 2003 film, The Brown Bunny: fans of arthouse cinema and perverts. The cover loudly proclaims that the film contains ‘Explicit Sexual Content’, which works as an obligatory warning but is designed more as temptation. And, given that the film is written, directed, edited, produced, and shot by Vincent Gallo and stars who else but Vincent Gallo, it has also received negative reviews by those who see it as an ego stroking project. But, like his previous movie, Buffalo ’66, Gallo has produced a hugely unsettling film that burns at its own pace.
Bud Clay (Gallo) is a professional motorcyclist and the film opens with him losing a race on the final lap. After the race he packs up his bike in his van and drives west to California where his next race will take place. Along the way he meets several women, named after flowers, with whom he spends brief moments. But, before anything happens with these women, he runs away and returns to the road.
At one point he visits the house of his old girlfriend, Daisy, from many years before, and while her parents can’t – or don’t want to – remember him, he notes that her pet bunny (the literal brown bunny of the title) is still alive. Later, when he visits a pet shop, he finds out from the shopkeeper that rabbits only live for five or six years. The sense is that the relationship with Daisy ended many more than six years before, leaving the viewer to wonder who has been replenishing the brown bunny.
When he arrives in California, Bud leaves a note at Daisy’s house asking him to meet him at a hotel when it appears she is not at home. Daisy, played by Chloë Sevigny, turns up at his hotel and thus begins the film’s graphic denouement which, while not widely heard of, is certainly infamous. A heady mix of drugs and graphic sex, the truth behind Bud and Daisy’s past is revealed and we learn what the hell has been troubling Bud as we followed him all the way across America.
The Brown Bunny, it is documented, was laughed at and booed in equal measure when it was showcased at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival. Film critic Roger Ebert noted that it was the worst film in the history of the festival which prompted a public war of words between himself and Gallo. The reasons were that the film was indulgent, pretentious, and contained ill-advised scenes; Gallo washing his van in real time, for example. But, believing in the film, Gallo went back to the studio and began editing it down from 126 minutes to 90, the resultant outcome finally changing Ebert’s mind. And while the film still contains many tedious scenes, they can be appreciated and be interpreted on different levels.
One of the biggest criticisms of The Brown Bunny is the amount of driving footage. For a road movie this seems a harsh complaint but, yes, much of the film does involve Gallo just driving and filming the sprawling expanses before him through a windshield blurred by bug splats and bird mess. But the footage is representative of Bud Clay’s mindset; long stretches of empty road, expanses of rough desert, bleak salt flats, and vibrant cities with neon signage rendered useless in daytime. He’s headed somewhere although he’s not quite sure where himself.
The women Clay meets along the way are, like his former girlfriend, named after flowers. There’s Violet, a young store clerk with imperfect teeth who dreams of heading to California and, when he begs her to come with him, she accepts only to be dumped at her home when he gives her five minutes to collect her stuff. Lily, who says nothing, is emotionally broken and, when Clay stops to buy a Coke, he finds himself sitting next to her and, by sharing a long kiss, they consider themselves temporarily complete. But Bud breaks it off again and drives away. And there’s Rose, a prostitute who offers him “a date”. Clay pays her to lunch with him and then drops her off. It is clear that of all the flowers he could pick, the humble Daisy is the one for him. The women bear necklaces too, their names proudly proclaimed here. It’s no mistake, then, that Daisy’s necklace should be a crucifix – this has a special significance given a certain revelation toward the end of the film.
We meet Daisy in a Californian hotel and it is here that the film’s longest scene takes place as Bud confronts Daisy about their past. A single event, many years before, resulted in Bud forming a wrong opinion about her and walking away from her and it is this that he is coming to terms with. As their meeting devolves to a sexual encounter, it is given metaphorical status by Daisy’s questions and Bud’s responses: she asks to turn out the lights, to which he refuses; she asks to go under the covers, again he refuses. These refusals are Bud’s attempts to face up to the time he walked away from Daisy and, by keeping her in the open he shows that he wants to confront his demon past.
A second instance of a brown bunny appears during their dialogue when Daisy refers to a time when Bud bought her a chocolate bunny upon which she made herself sick. He loved her so much that he kissed her anyway. This event, even just in passing, is representative of Bud’s feelings toward Daisy and explains why he abandons all the other women that he meets: he loves Daisy too much. But when it comes to the titular brown bunny, it is Bud Clay. When he is on the motorcycle track, he is going round and round, and this applies to his life with (or rather, without) Daisy. His mind is going emotionally in circles, always coming close to being resolved but never finding resolution, an event foreshadowed in the opening scene where, after leading the race for so long, he is pipped at the post. The film ends with him beginning his cycle again (his Daisy chain, if you will); Bud’s emotions come to a climax before resuming their troubling crescendo, just like Daisy’s rabbit coming to the end of its life and being mysteriously replenished.
The Brown Bunny is a slow and tedious journey along one of the cycles of Bud Clay’s life and does most of its speaking through its imagery. The characters rarely talk, making their words important; and the long unbroken passages of driving footage are accompanied by beautiful Americana providing an excellent soundtrack to Clay’s bleak mind.
Credit is due to Gallo for not talking down to his audience – although the perverts who take little interest in the meaning may need such condescension – and little explanation is needed. There are cause and effect scenes: you see the cause, you see the effect, but you don’t see the middle-ground, which forces you to make the leap between scenes that more popular fare may save you the brain strain of. This is great, although it means Gallo has more opportunity to regale you with footage of empty America. He even finds time to show us how to fill up his van with fuel. Riveting stuff!
After over an hour of travelling across America with intermittent stop offs, The Brown Bunny needed something to take it beyond the experiment in mood that it is. This, of course, takes shape in a twist which I shall not reveal, and, as stated before, some explicit sexual action. The “action” involves Sevigny fellating Gallo, which is probably why Kirsten Dunst and Winona Ryder had refused the role before Gallo’s former girlfriend Sevigny, herself no stranger to controversial roles, took it – and him, so to speak – on. Some cynics would say that Gallo just wanted a blowjob on screen, given that he wrote the movie. The scene is certainly not easy to watch as Clay, via Daisy, berates himself while trying to confront his motives for walking away from her all those years before. Whether the decision not to simulate the act was necessary is open to discussion but without it the scene would certainly be weaker.
The acting in the film is great and understated, Gallo’s character reduced to moments of desperation which you can really feel as his voice changes from being sort-of sure of himself to out and out begging and whining. Sevigny puts in an excellent albeit brief performance as Daisy. Other fringe actors are convincing enough, some are downright mysterious and play their roles and make them delightfully opaque so that you are left to ponder their stories. Does Daisy’s mother, for example, really not know who Bud is, or is she blocking him from her memory?
The camerawork is mostly on handheld cameras, gifting the images a certain grain that offers an almost sense of timelessness. There are many close-ups of Bud and these allude to Bud’s inability to see his complete self. And the film is shot through with disturbing silences and industrial soundscapes worthy of Lynch’s Eraserhead.
All in all, Gallo’s The Brown Bunny will not to be the taste of many. It has few events, has scenes that drag on longer than necessary, contains little dialogue, and shows far too much of the American countryside. But its strength is that the film isn’t about all these things; instead it’s about one man’s need for redemption, his search for a release that can never come and haunts his life. And everything, no matter how tedious it appears on the surface level, has a greater calling in the telling so that you can’t view the film literally without thinking of it in a metaphorical sense - unless you are one of the perverts who just wants to see what a blowjob is like and couldn’t care less about its meaning.