At this late stage, it's impossible to separate Vincent Gallo's second film, "The Brown Bunny," from the snits, scandals and flights of weirdness it's engendered since last year, when a rough cut shown at Cannes prompted Roger Ebert to pronounce it the festival's worst. This is good news for the makers and distributors of "The Brown Bunny," which is not a movie that wants to be judged solely on its merits qua movie.
If "The Brown Bunny" were a painting, it would be a blue rhombus hanging on a wall at the Pompidou Center. Gallo's notoriety and Whack-a-Mole fits of pique give it context and dimension. Whether he intended for "The Brown Bunny" to be viewed as part of a much larger conceptual piece all along (He repeatedly claims not to be an artist, by which we can only assume that he doesn't want us thinking about his intentions at all), the tears, the apologies, the hex on Ebert's bowels and the Sunset Strip billboard that followed featuring Gallo and co-star Chloë Sevigny in flagrante fellatio have all but ensured that it will.
How much you enjoy the experience will depend on your take on Gallo. If you think he's a brilliant, satirical cut-up, then "The Brown Bunny" is an elaborate and successful art prank. If you think he's a pretentious, self-obsessed, tedious weirdo, then "The Brown Bunny" will back you up 100%. What I can say unequivocally is that if "The Brown Bunny" had been directed by an unknown first-time director, you and I wouldn't be here right now. (But we are, and if the point had been to draw attention to this fact, then it would have been nicely put.)
Gallo plays a Grand Prix motorcycle racer named Bud Clay who is haunted by his past. I know this because it's right there in the production notes. Upon finishing a race in New Hampshire (actually, "finishing" is a strong word. He drives the motorcycle around the track for at least 10 minutes), Bud loads his bike into his van, stops at a gas station, fills his tank, tries to persuade a snaggletoothed gas station attendant named Violet to come with him and heads west.
Along the way, he visits the house in which his ex-girlfriend Daisy (Sevigny) grew up. Daisy's parents are still there, and they're still taking care of their daughter's pet bunny. Bud, however, doesn't ring any bells, even though he grew up right next door. That's because Daisy's parents are about 85 years old and don't appear to be in full possession of their faculties. We've hitherto seen Daisy only in brief, silent flashbacks — but she doesn't look a day over 25. If some sort of in vitro miracle took place here, it's never explained, neither is the astounding longevity of the bunny, though we do learn later that the average lifespan of his species is cruelly brief.
But what's math in the face of pain?
Gallo, who wrote and directed, features himself in every scene of the film; snuffling into his sleeve, driving sadly and failing to connect with the various bits of human flotsam he encounters on the road. At a rest stop, Bud meets Lilly (Cheryl Tiegs), a woman whose wardrobe says "I date truckers" but whose eyes say something even sadder. In Reno, he picks up a hooker named Rose. (She's wearing a name necklace, as was Violet. In fact, every woman Bud meets wears an identifying accessory, like a beloved pet.)
It's not much to look at (I had a pen in my hand, and it was all I could do not to update my to-do list), but "The Brown Bunny" has a certain lingering quality; maybe it's the feeling of repetition, or the hypnotic powers of the open road. Gallo served as his own one-man crew, and the thought of him spending days on end alone in his car with a rolling camera, plunged like a doughnut in scalding black despair, is fun to imagine, in a bleak, existentialist way.
A linear road movie in which silence and vastness and motion are meant to represent alienation and captivity, "The Brown Bunny" is part of a well-established tradition. It owes a debt — I'd say at least 50 bucks — to Monte Hellman's "Two-Lane Blacktop," plus 10 more or so to "Easy Rider." Although Gallo insists in ornery interview after ornery interview that he is not influenced by other films, the influence of certain contemplative European directors of the 1960s is apparent. Very little happens, but what does is felt deeply. He barely spares us the mundane details of road-tripping, but he consistently forgets to squeegee his windshield. His world is viewed through a grisly bug holocaust.
As for the scene featured in the billboard: Well, it's not exactly sextacular. (Although, to be fair, it beats watching Bud fill his tank.) In the production notes, the scene is described as "one of the frankest portrayals of male sexuality ever seen in American cinema," and I believe it. It frankly points out that even sex can be kind of boring sometimes. On the other hand, the sheer in-your-face weirdness of watching two well-known actors engage in real as opposed to pretend sex is something, though. Especially since to watch the things actors do to each other in standard studio potboilers is to be reminded of the things Julia Child used to do to chickens.
I hope I'm not giving too much away by revealing that "The Brown Bunny" concludes with an M. Night Shyamalan-type twist, only about $60 million cheaper. I love a surprise ending as much as the next person, but I tend to find them less satisfying after 92 minutes of mute despair. I never expected "The Brown Bunny" to close with a big finish, let alone two, and days later I still can't decide if I feel grateful or cheated.
Anyway, you can't blame Gallo for trying, no matter how clumsy the pass, to entice viewers to come along for the ride with a little something extra. Bud made nothing but clumsy passes from New Hampshire to California, and the man got results. Then again, those flower-ladies were easy. All it took to get young Violet in the van was a tremulous, high-pitched, "Please? Please come with me? Please?" Most of us require a little more convincing.
'The Brown Bunny'
MPAA rating: Unrated. No one under 18 admitted.
Times guidelines: Unsuitable for most attention spans. Explicit (and we mean explicit) sex.
Vincent Gallo... Bud Clay
Chloë Sevigny... Daisy
Cheryl Tiegs... Lilly
Mary Morasky...Mrs. Lemon
A Wellspring Release. Written, directed, edited and Produced by Vincent Gallo. Director of photography Vincent Gallo. Running time is 92 minutes.In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times