Before the disastrous oral sex scene that kills the picture, The Brown Bunny has several qualities that would have made the movie worth recommending. Vincent Gallo isn’t much of an actor or a screenwriter; he does, however, show promise as a director. Not as a director of actors, certainly, but as a visual stylist. As a photographer, despite one major lapse in the film’s final half-hour, he’s already a nonpareil.
The film’s finest sequence and most gorgeous imagery: a montage of wet Ohio interstate, slick and misty with rain. Gallo positions a camera facing forward in the back seat of his van, and through a smudged windshield, it steadily records pale gray-blue impressions of the sky, constellations of oncoming headlights, and as twilight darkens, the unexpected, ethereal red beauty of blinking taillights.
If I recall correctly, Gallo scores this with Gordon Lightfoot’s tune “Beautiful.” But no matter if I’m mistaken: Gallo’s musical choices across the board are superb, both in their spareness and loveliness. Twice he summons the 1964 “Tears for Dolphy,” one of the most muscular elegies ever composed, by the underrated trumpeter Ted Curson. Gallo samples the interaction between horn and double-bass in a clip that shows the auteur showering after a sweaty day at the racetrack; if anyone’s ears are open, I hope The Brown Bunny sparks renewed interest, however minor, in Curson’s music.
The film follows Gallo (who calls his on-screen persona “Bud Clay”) from New Hampshire to California. On silent dark roads stretching toward infinity, Bud pines for his lost love Daisy (Chloë Sevigny) and the three women he flirts with along the way are, somewhat unaccountably, also named for flowers: Lilly, Rose, and Violet.
In a filling station, the un-blooming Bud plucks his Violet, a young lady with a bright smile and extraordinarily bad teeth. At every flash of Violet’s jagged bucks, I longed to see her in the embrace of a capable orthodontist. The two trade chitchat: she fawningly looks up to him for being a bike racer (though she hasn’t seen him race), and he asks her to go to California. Bud speaks with a tinny, wimpy, uninflected voice, mealy and mewling his way through “please…please…please come with me.” Violet pins a note to the door, “To Aunt Anita and Uncle Barry,” and off they go. The strangers kiss and swear protestations of liking each other.
Not much comes of their cross-pollination effort beyond hazily lovely footage of modest small-town neighborhoods, verdant boughs, as viewed through the prism of that dirty windshield. Abandoning the teenage girl before a visit to Daisy’s parents, Gallo imbues Bud’s odyssey with sounds of a guitar strumming to a female singer’s plaintive wordless mm-hmm. It’s a quiet movie; you can hear birds chirping. And even during the racing scene, Gallo weaves the sound in and out poetically, striating the engines’ drone against a scarcely audible stir of breezes.
Unspoken tragedy permeates a slow, well-directed stopover at his “in-laws.” Seated in their kitchen, Bud tries to jog their memories of who he is. The invalid father doesn’t or can’t speak. The homely decor screams lower working-class drab, and the weathered, sad, monosyllabic mother comments on not having heard from Daisy in a long time, not knowing why. Prominent pauses amid sparse dialogue outweigh the words. Bud: “Daisy likes swimming,” or “We had a pool, but it wasn’t nice.”
When Bud meets Rose (played by Elizabeth Blake), Gallo’s closed-in despair begins to make movie sense. Unlike the other roadside prostitutes on a motel-strewn Vegas highway, Rose still has prettiness. Yet she’s vapid and that disappoints him. An anguished brief encounter wherein she mostly chews French fries convinces Bud that Rose can’t make him forget about Daisy. Haven’t we all been there?
There’s very little dialogue in The Brown Bunny, which is just as well. As a physical presence, Gallo has in his favor the glassy marble of his blue eyes, an expressive mop of unruly black hair. His high voice, however, is all wrong; in the film’s final passages, he whines and whines, an interminable falsetto that hearing hurts. A willingness to be embarrassing isn’t the same as bravery.
The film’s pace up until Daisy materializes has been deliberate; she appears at Bud’s Los Angeles motel room so suddenly she seems a mirage of a daydream. Her dialogue, babbled without an iota of inflection, is equally unreal. “Can I have you, Bud?” Daisy asks first thing. A bit later: “I never want to kiss anybody else. I loved your mouth, the way you taste.”
Their reunion scene, at the beginning, feels vaguely reminiscent of the sequence wherein an estranged husband and wife meet again, also after a lengthy road trip and untold years of separation, in Wim Wenders’ Paris Texas. Both films assay an authentically tentative quality between two emotionally scarred intimates. The thin badinage of the ciphers in The Brown Bunny, however, is even more remote than the Wenders/Sam Shepard exchanges between Nastassja Kinski and Harry Dean Stanton.
Gallo styled Sevigny’s hair and makeup. With her dishwater blonde head full of curling iron ringlets, she resembles an overgrown child, which makes the explicit oral sex even more disturbingly like bad porn. Sevigny—whatever Gallo paid her for performing this act on film wasn’t enough—groans and moans with his hefty erection in her mouth, as he towers over her whispering, “You won’t ever suck anybody else’s cock, promise me.”
One glimpse of the insertion would’ve sufficed. Gallo seems inordinately proud of his engorged instrument, granting that region of his anatomy no fewer than three close-ups, possibly more: I only know that I burst out laughing at the third one. After Bud and Daisy finish, he tells her, “You fuckin’ whore! I hate you so much! I don’t love you anymore.” Even the lighting and photographic texture change during this scene to make the incident look cheaper and more lurid than it already is. – NPT
September 7, 2004