Larry Clark will never be accused of subtlety. All of his pictures–“Kids” (1995), about free sex and drug use among Manhattan teens; “Another Day in Paradise” (1998), about a young junkie and his girlfriend being initiated into the criminal life by an older couple; and now this docu- drama, based on a book (not a novel, as the press notes would have it) by Jim Schutze, about a group of aimless Florida kids who brutally murder one of their own without any hint of remorse– are in-your-face, take-no-prisoners cinema, shot in a gritty, grubby style and deliberately eschewing any trace of technical slickness or moral judgment. They’re also so explicit in their depiction of adolescent sex and violence that it’s difficult not to see them as essentially prurient exercises, whatever their maker’s higher purposes might be–if there are any.
“Bully” is a bit more accomplished, from a purely technical standpoint, than Clark’s earlier efforts, but it still has lots of flat spots, when the camera seems content merely to stand still indefinitely, punctuated by sequences that are wildly amateurish in their attempt to appear artsy. There’s one scene of a front-yard conversation among the kids who are planning the murder, for example, that uses a circular pan of the participants so rushed and prolonged that it seems like “Judgment at Nuremberg” on steroids. (You get physically nauseous while watching it. Maybe that’s the idea, but if so it was a bad one.) Another sequence, involving graphic sex between two members of the group, is photographed so erratically that you’d swear the camera was screwed down on a raft bobbing up and down on some large body of water.
Simply because of its narrative, “Bully” naturally has a visceral power: any story about a bunch of drug-addled, promiscuous youngsters who thoughtlessly slaughter a supposed friend (who doesn’t seem much worse than the rest of them, to be honest) is bound to have some impact, especially when it makes a point of not being the kind of discreet, cautionary tale it would be turned into as a run-of-the-mill telefilm. (The actual murder, it should be noted, has been characterized as exceptionally brutal, but it’s actually rather tame by contemporary standards.) On the other hand, the gratuitous emphasis on adolescent sex gives it a slightly pornographic air, and the refusal to portray the young characters except in the broadest strokes, without any hint of background explanation or psychological commentary, gives it a drily schematic, superficial feel. The concluding courtroom scene, moreover, is oddly empty; the picture, rather like its characters, just trails off into insignificance.
Within all these limitations, the young cast is undeniably impressive. Nick Stahl is smoothly menacing as Bobby Kent, whose mistreatment of girls and of his best buddy Marty (Brad Renfro) eventually leads to his demise. (His pleas at the last moment are actually affecting.) Renfro is more mannered, and his buff physique doesn’t seem entirely consistent with his role as a victim, but he has moments–as when his girlfriend (Rachel Miner) tells him she’s pregnant–that are quite powerful. Miner is, in a way, the most important member of the lead triangle, since she’s the catalyst for the murder plot, and especially toward the close, when her dazed realization of what they’ve done begins to dawn on her, she’s very good. The remaining members of the group–Bijou Phillips and Kelli Garner as a couple of airhead bimbos, Michael Pitt as the former’s perpetually stoned boyfriend, and Daniel Franzese as a hulking video-game enthusiast– are adequate, though none of them strikes any special magic. Leo Fitzpatrick, much more skilled than he appeared as one of the leads in “Kids,” gets in some good licks as a would-be gangster whom the gang brings into their plot and who bemoans their naivete and inexperience.
“Bully” winds up as a film of fits and starts, occasionally striking but more often curiously flat and uninvolving. Many viewers will find it simply offensive, and even the more open-minded will have to admit that it’s terribly uneven.