One Man’s Journey To Narcissim: ‘The Brown Bunny’ (2003)

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The Brown Bunny is notorious for a lot of things, but less for the first 95% of the film. Vincent Gallo, director/producer/writer/musician/model, and someone who thinks highly of himself, rented a billboard on the Sunset Strip advertising the film, capitalizing on the controversy of an unsimulated blow job with actress Chloe Sevigny.

The billboard was taken down, but not without the media hubub he wanted. This film also got a scathing review from Roger Ebert, which prompted Gallo to call him a disgusting pig. Ebert, always having the way with words, retorted, “Ten years from now, I may no longer be a fat pig, but you’ll always be the director of The Brown Bunny.” For some reason, Ebert agreed to watch an extended director’s cut, retracting his earlier review and calling it.

The film, essentially a road movie, is not so much a story of one man’s personal journey,  but a series of long-shots of people and places and things. And these people, places and things are all related to Vincent Gallo, the person. The Brown Bunny is a narcissistic act masquerading as an art film. Gallo, an ardent motorcycle enthusiast, plays Bud, also a motorcycle racer. What a coincidence! The film opens with Bud roaring around a track in circles, a good five minutes after it becomes interesting. The roaring engine repetition does somehow take on an emotion, but maybe I was just trying to hard to make meaning of it all.

If you don’t know what Vincent Gallo looks like, google him now. He is incredibly striking, and unsurprisingly has dabbled in modeling. Gallo knows this, and this becomes part of his character. I can’t fault him in acknowledging his own attractiveness; I fault him for being lazy in also making that part of his character. In the film, women are drawn to him immediately and have way in allowing themselves to be drawn to him and will usually be resistant to immediately being infatuated with him. He plays the soulful “broken” man that women supposedly find so appealing. He doesn’t have too much faith in women, since he allows them to long for him before disappearing from their lives. It makes me, as a woman, have no sympathy for his character, who we are supposedly supposed to be brooding with, and supposedly feeling bad for him because he is estranged from his true love, Daisy.

After the too-long motorcycle montage, Bud stops in a small town general store. (The unhip of Americana is always so fascinating to the seemingly urban hip.) The young clerk, no more than sixteen years old, flirts with him and he sees an opportunity to flirt back. He asks her to come with him, to just run away with him. Of course, sixteen-year-old girl in a town going nowhere jumps at the chance to be with him. He drives her to her place so she can pick up some of her things, and as she goes inside, he speeds away in his truck.

It’s a complete dick move that even I didn’t see coming. How do we interpret that? That he is a total monster who gets off on manipulating women’s emotions? Does he just need to know women lust after him to feed his narcissism? Did he just get too scared at the last minute? It makes me less likely to want to watch this man drive long stretches of wide open road. THe camera lingers on him as he drives, daring the audience to try to find something deep within this man.

He later stops in Los Angeles, picking up a young prostitute, talking to her as if to save her from her life, where she only begs to get paid. This prostitute trope is tiring and insulting; the good guy insisting he has to save her, to talk her out of this work in only a few minutes of interaction. Bud takes her to lunch, possibly because he is lonely and wants to talk to someone. Later, she is gone from his life, not as a woman but as woman who exists to fill Bud’s need for female attention.

Maybe we are to think that Bud is desperate for intimacy, both emotional and physical, but can’t find it. I wish this film was nuanced enough to show us that, but I have to really stretch to come to that conclusion. Bud stops at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, passing my model Cheryl Tiegs (why is she here?), knowing full well that she is checking him out. He drinks the soda so she can admire his ass and back. He eventually approaches her at the table, and he gives her longing looks, which of course, she cannot resist. Without any words, they caress each other and begin to kiss. Once again, he gets up and flees from this woman, while she is left devastated.

By the time I’m at this part of the film, my hatred for Vincent Gallo has grown, and I can only reason that he included this in the film to remind the audience how irresistible he is to women. He may think he included this scene to once again show that he is too raw to connect with anyone, but this has now just become one long extended metaphorical cinematic jerk off session for him.

He visits Daisy’s elderly parents, talking about shallow topics and referencing the rabbit in their house, remembering how much Daisy loved the rabbit. So Daisy, this love of his life, has no other discerning personality characteristics other than she loves this rabbit. Great.

Finally, at the end of the film, we meet Daisy, who enters his hotel room. Daisy is a perfectly coifed and wardrobed Chloe Sevigny, looking more like a hipster LA starlet than a ordinary girl living in a small town in the midwest. She begs Bud for forgiveness, reminding him of the time they spent together. Sevigny is convincing and great with what is given to her, and it makes me wonder what this character even sees in Bud (other than yes, he is very hot.) He complains that she was seen with another man, or was sleeping with another man, and she insists that he is the only one she ever wants to love. This goes on for a while, enough for Daisy to rub herself all over him and caress him, taking off her shirt. Finally, he relents, kissing her, but then aggressively pushing her to his knees and unbuckles his pants.

Here we go. We’re at the infamous oral sex scene. This is what everyone was talking about. You know what? It was pretty damn hot. These are two attractive actors, and Chloe really went for it, so to speak. It, of course, seemed alarming in a film that was mostly watching someone drive a car.

But let’s go back to the aggressiveness in which he pushes her head down. Daisy is at first hesitant but then proceeds (with gusto!), so I do not see any need to bring up rape issues in this case.However, his aggressiveness, although unbecoming, FINALLY has him showing a strong emotion, his character making a strong choice about how he feels about someone else. He does not want Daisy to do this as a precursor to making love, this is how he punishes her, making her prove himself to him. He mostly controls her, grasping her head as she does the act (still hot though). He pulls her away, and doesn’t ejaculate. There’s no metaphor to figure out here, he wants Daisy to serve him. He lays back down on the bed, pouting, and it’s more begging from Daisy for forgiveness. Through their pillow talk, we learn more about why they are not together, in an ending even more out of left field than an M. Night Shamalayn film.

Sigh. Here’s the scoop: In vague flashback scenes, the two of them were attending a party, in which Daisy casually started talking to two men who were not Bud. They drug her and rape her in one if the houses bedrooms. Bud walks in on them and since he can’t see Daisy’s face (on account of one of the guy’s cocks being shoved in her mouth) so he thinks that she’s participating. He backs out quietly (what????) hurt that Daisy is “cheating” on him. Still passed out after the rape, Daisy chokes on her own vomit and dies. Bud doesn’t realize this until she’s wheeled out on a gurney into an ambulance.

Big reveal! Spoiler alert! The Daisy who is in the room with him is not real, just a figment of his memory of her. Bud hadn’t accepted her death until this tete-a-tete with this imaginary ghost of her, what he was searching for all along. It’s lazy writing, and makes any attempt we had to try to embrace his character a total waste of time. Sure, he was distraught because the love of his life died and he blames himself. Understandable. But why did she have to die so violently for the story to be about his journey? His grief is a reasonable reaction for the context of the situation. This does not make Bud interesting or have more depth. It’s ultimately a cop-out as a screenwriter when they don’t know how to end things.

In defense of the blow-job scene, it was initially startling because you don’t see it in films, but in retrospect, it fit in the story. It was certainly a way which illustrated some power dynamics between the characters. We also need to be more accepting of sexuality in films, especially one in which isn’t through the male gaze. To Gallo’s credit, the scene could appeal to men and women, straight or gay There’s a little something for everyone. It’s a shame that it became the thing just used for shock value marketing.

After ghost Daisy is gone from the hotel, Bud rides off into the big open road, possibly headed to pick up more vulnerable women to feed his narcissism. Just like this film fed the narcissism of the real Vincent Gallo.

Watching people in their quiet, ordinary moments can be fascinating. I prefer these slower, more subdued character study films to an action film any day. But the filmmaker has to ensure us that the character we take the journey with is worth the time.

So, fuck you, VIncent Gallo for making this film and unleashing it on the world. It’s quite a shame, because his previous film Buffalo ‘66 was quite great, and not completely different from the premise of this film. He’s also paired with Christina Ricci, and their chemistry makes the film, and Gallo is not left trying to carry the entire film with his supposed “rugged complexity”.

Considering The Brown Bunny is hard to find (i.e., not on any streaming services or blu-ray), I think this film will fade into obscurity, perhaps its controversial release becoming a pink wedge trivial pursuit question. Or, many decades from now, someone will rediscover it and convince the world to give it another chance. I just don’t see that happening in my lifetime.

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