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The Brown Bunny

(2004) ** Unrated
95 min. Wellspring. Director: Vincent Gallo. Cast: Vincent Gallo, Chloe Sevigny, Cheyl Tiegs, Elizabeth Blake, Anna Vareschi.

I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Vincent Gallo's notorious The Brown Bunny isn't a horrible film. Though the film may be surprising, it isn't by any stretch pleasant. Gallo's effort—which he wrote, directed, edited, and produced (among other duties)—is a sincere one, and arguably a good one: a psychological snapshot of a damaged loner as seen in contrast to the girl who means everything to him. Eagerly defiant of audience expectations, Gallo takes the long way around to his physically and emotionally raw "climax." Even The Brown Bunny's defenders will have to admit it's a vanity project; the film's detractors—and who but the director would blame them?—can't get on Gallo's trip.

Gallo applies photographic integrity and apt music to a story long on melancholy mood and short on conventional drama. The director announces his intentions with an opening scene regarding a lone motorcyclist circling a New Hampshire racetrack; intermittently, the sound cuts out to draw us into the rider's blank focus even as Gallo intensifies the character's individuality. This is Bud Clay, a man about to take a slowpoke pilgrimage to the City of Angels in search of his ex-girlfriend Daisy (Gallo's real-life ex-girlfriend Chloe Sevigny).

Imagery of the lonely highways and wide expanses like the Bonneville Salt Flats International Speedway contrast the in-your-face banality of city life, peppered with McDonald's franchises and Coca-Cola. Since his infamous reception at the Cannes Film Festival, Gallo has made significant trims to the running time. Most audiences will have an allergic reaction to the slow pace, but the film almost succeeds in capitalizing on a hypnotic quality borne of stylistic tricks borrowed—as in Buffalo '66—from David Lynch.

It's quickly apparent that Bud is a man at odds, trying and failing to get over Daisy. Even the most receptive audience will chuckle at multiple poker-faced sequences in which women (a gas station attendant, a succession of streetwalkers, and—slumped over a rest-stop picnic table—a frowsy Cheryl Tiegs) make longing overtures to Bud, only to be rebuffed by him. The reasons for Bud's antisocial and eventually misogynistic behavior eventually come into focus: the inverted dramatic irony of The Brown Bunny gives it a retroactive kick.

In making his point, however, Gallo pushes Daisy to the margins of the narrative and subjects her to humiliating business (namely, a three-minute long fellatio sequence that ain't faked, folks). Gallo means for the oral sex to be off-putting, but also to illustrate Bud's pitiable pathology, and that it does. The Brown Bunny is intended as an allegory of disasterously failed true love, complete with flowery names. That Gallo's narrative never allows Daisy to be more than a foil for Bud betrays Gallo's narcissism and stokes the perception that the director has it in for those darn women, leaving—well, a bad taste in our mouths.

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