If you follow entertainment news with any regularity, you’re probably already familiar with The Brown Bunny. Last year it caused an uproar at Cannes with its graphic three-minute sequence of writer-producer-director-cinematographer-editor-star Vincent Gallo being hungrily fellated by Chloe Sevigny. The filmmaker subsequently got into a highly publicized feud with Roger Ebert, who had called The Brown Bunny the worst film in the history of the festival. And last month community outcry in Los Angeles forced the removal of a 60-foot billboard over Sunset Boulevard that offered a more oblique image of Sevigny going down on Gallo. The billboard advertised the film as being rated X, a classification long ago discarded by the Motion Picture Association of America (in fact the film is unrated) but still embraced by the porn industry.
Now The Brown Bunny has finally been released into the commercial desert of late summer, 26 minutes shorter than it was at Cannes but with every frame of its notorious fellatio scene intact. Considered on its own terms, it turns out to be an interesting but not entirely successful combination of road movie, landscape film, and psychological drama. Gallo plays an alienated motorcycle racer who finishes a contest in New Hampshire, loads his Honda RS250 into his van, and heads west for a race in Los Angeles, stopping to visit his ex-girlfriend’s parents, inspect some rabbits at a pet store, and do his Marlon Brando routine for three different women (including 70s swimsuit goddess Cheryl Tiegs). For much of the film’s first two thirds Gallo simply points the camera through his bug-splattered windshield and lets the midwestern terrain cast its hypnotic spell. Only in the last third, when he gets down to the business of telling a story, does The Brown Bunny become a porn movie—though not in the sense you’d expect.
When this cut screened at the Toronto film festival last fall, Sevigny told the press, “I think The Brown Bunny is a beautiful film, although it’s not for everyone. It’s arty, it’s meditative, and it’s nonnarrative.” That’s a fair assessment up to the last word: it might be more accurate to say that Gallo is nonnarrative. “I never read a novel in my life,” he said at a press conference in Cannes. “I read parts of The Godfather. I’ve read one Salinger piece. I’ve read from a few books here and there. Fiction, never read a script in my life. . . . The written word is very inefficient to me.” This probably explains how The Brown Bunny can have a relatively sophisticated visual sense and yet in other respects seem like a teenager’s first short story. For instance, Gallo’s character is symbolically named Bud Clay, and the four women he encounters romantically are all named after flowers—Lilly, Rose, Violet, and Sevigny’s character, Daisy Lemon, who’s left a bad taste in Bud’s mouth.
This lack of narrative guile, combined with the director’s evident self-regard, can be weirdly arresting. Gallo is not a handsome man, but Bud Clay (like the kidnapper Gallo played in his first film, Buffalo 66) seems preternaturally attractive to women. Watching him come on to Violet (Elizabeth Blake), a lovely girl with crooked teeth who works at a gas station, and Lilly (Tiegs), a leggy older woman sitting at a highway rest stop, is like reading that teenager’s story and savoring, with a shiver of embarrassment, his delight in his own ego. These scenes are especially effective given the arid, dreamlike pace: Gallo shot much of the driving footage himself, one camera pointed straight ahead and another in the passenger’s seat to capture his profile, and in some instances, particularly his looping trip through a green midwestern town, the relentless oncoming scenery has the undiluted power of a diary entry.
Only the vaguest story line emerges during all this. In one scene Bud returns to his hometown and visits Daisy’s parents. Though he grew up in the house next door, Daisy’s mother doesn’t remember him; she hasn’t heard from Daisy in a while, and neither has he, despite his claim that they live together in Los Angeles. Daisy pops up a couple times in fleeting flashbacks as Bud nears LA, and once he’s arrived in town and checked into a hotel, he leaves a note on her door (here a neighbor doesn’t recognize him, so apparently the line about them living together was bunk). Back in his hotel room she finally materializes, disappears into the bathroom a couple times to smoke crack, and reminisces about the time he bought her a chocolate bunny and she wolfed the whole thing down, making herself sick. Before long she’s on her knees, wolfing him down, and Bud is hissing accusations at her.
In the press notes Gallo refuses to discuss the movie’s ending, and readers who don’t want it spoiled for them should stop here. (After all, the best scene is over, right?) “You’re a fuckin’ whore,” Bud declares as soon as Daisy tucks his penis back into his shorts. “I don’t love you anymore. You don’t love anybody. I don’t trust you anymore.” As the two lie in bed together Gallo intercuts a flashback sequence narrated by Bud: Before he traveled to New Hampshire the couple went to a party together, and Daisy ditched Bud to get high with some strange men. She passed out, they gang-raped her, and ultimately she asphyxiated on her own vomit. Once the story has been told, Gallo cuts back to the hotel room, where Bud lies in bed alone.
In one sense the flashback is a masterstroke, exposing the fellatio scene as a male revenge fantasy (which is exactly the way it plays on-screen) and forcing the viewer to reevaluate the entire movie. But in a larger sense it’s just the breathless gimmickry of an amateur writer. There’s no real-life trigger for Bud’s sex fantasy or flashback, no external event that shakes him from his catatonic denial and forces him to confront the truth; the revelation happens when it happens only because Gallo has been saving it for a slam-bang finish. Once the secret is revealed the story has nowhere else to go, and Gallo makes a beeline for the end credits. Even without the fellatio sequence The Brown Bunny would still operate on the same narrative principle as a porn movie, with Bud’s buried trauma as the money shot.
When I mentioned to a friend that I was reviewing The Brown Bunny, he grimaced and asked, “Isn’t that supposed to be, like, the worst movie of all time?” The only other thing he knew about the film was that it contained a hard-core sex scene. As the billboard over Sunset Boulevard demonstrated, that scene has now become the movie’s primary selling point; a preview calls it “the most controversial American film ever made,” a tired come-on for any release too violent or too prurient to cop an R rating. After The Brown Bunny was branded at Cannes, the distributors probably felt they had no other choice but to hype the three minutes of carnality in a largely ethereal film. It’s hardly the worst movie of all time, or the most controversial. But with its severely limited market and its awful reputation, it may be the least likely to survive the summer.