The Brown Bunny
The girls dig Vincent Gallo, but Gallo doesn’t dig the girls. Or at least his character, Budd Clay, doesn’t dig the girls. In The Brown Bunny
it is initially difficult to separate Gallo the man from Clay the character since the film-written, directed, produced, edited, shot, and partially scored by Gallo, among other things-is probably one of the most independent, and highly personal films to hit cinemas outside of a documentary circuit. Decidedly minimalist, The Brown Bunny
opens with a fervor of activity in a sprightly photographed motorcycle race of which Clay is a (losing) participant. After the race Budd packs his bike into his van, fills up his tank with gas, and then does a curious thing. When he notices the gas station clerk’s name is Violet he pleads
with her to come to California with him. Gallo’s fervent eyes, blazing out of his ruddy, unshaven cheeks exude a loser’s need, but he comes off understandably creepy. Still, the girls dig Gallo. Violet agrees to Budd's request and joins him in the van. Budd stops off at her house, and after a brief but intense kiss he lets her go retrieve her stuff from the house, and he leaves her there, taking off across the country to his next race in California.
What follows can best be described as an ambling but focused trip down U.S. highways and town streets. Much of the middle portion of the film is shot from the center console of Budd’s van, facing either out the front window watching the road approach or recording Budd’s face as he transverses the country. The film is simple to a T but poeticized through Gallo’s long takes, obvious aesthetic decisions and agreeable metaphors. Chief among the later are the three women he encounters on the road-really the only human contact and plot points in the film in the long stretch between New York State and California-who are all named after flowers, a trait shared by his Clay's dreamily remembered ex-girlfriend Daisy (Chloë Sevigny). In general his experience with each woman is like that between him and Violet. There is little verbal communication and what takes place feels less a true human connection and more an outburst of deeply emphatic physical need.
These connections are a test or compulsion of Budd, almost a pathological need to seek the kind of intimacy that he seems to have lost somewhere along his way. That loss, the deep isolation of the man, is only too clear in Gallo’s long, but never tedious, visual log of the road trip. Deeper still is the pain inside the character, and though Gallo probably could not be called a terrific actor, his use of limited dialog in the film is highly effective, for when he occasionally does speak it is in a whiney, vulnerable, quasi-effeminate voice that resonates with a bewildered loneliness which explains the reticent exterior.
Moments of transcendence are necessary in such a dismal, though beautiful, travelogue, and when they do come they hit like a ton of bricks. While much has been made about the explicitness and authenticity of Budd’s re-meeting and sexual engagement with Daisy when he finally reaches L.A., the moment is tainted with the same failure of intimacy and mutual cooperation as Budd’s experiences with other girls.
Instead, The Brown Bunny
’s true exhilaration is halfway through the trip when Budd stops off at a salt flat to take out his bike. Riding off into the horizon, Gallo’s bike approaches and then passes the line where radiating heat waves meet the landscape. The bike proceeds to glide off on a surface that looks like a a rippling mirror, the bike was coasting on a shimmering reflection of itself. The moment exemplifies the ambiguity in Gallo’s minimalism. For one, the salt flat race is a relief for the audience because we are no longer watching Budd’s placid journey from his passenger seat and the same can probably be said for Budd himself, he is no longer following the repetitious, pathological pattern of his voyage. But at the same time all he really is doing is driving again; he may be going faster and approach a sense of freedom but the bike will always return to its dependency on the van and likewise Budd will eventually go looking for a solution to his inner hurt.
When Budd arrives in L.A.-which looks about as dreary as Vegas and the other few stopovers Clay makes through America-and finds his fantasy’d Daisy fawning over him just like the other girls it momentarily seems like Budd will transcend his loneliness, get past whatever it is he has issues with. By then the plot kicks in in overdrive, pounding the viewer with flashbacks digging up the root of Budd’s pathology. The revelation is neither a blessing nor a curse; Budd opens himself up to a terrible wound and Gallo uses enormously forceful and aesthetically controversial direction to stage the revelation in lieu of psychologically rich content. When it is all said and done Gallo refuses to determine Budd’s fate. After his encounter with Daisy Budd neither races nor picks up more girls, but self-realization does not necessarily lead to self-improvement and for all we know Budd will drive right back to New York under the same pretenses of temporary freedom. Whether or not Gallo's portrait of male isolation and passivity is hopeful in the end is not what is important; what remains is aesthetically potent, thematically simple, and emotionally charged use of cinema to envision an attractive man's crushing inability to share intimacy with women.