Vincent Gallo’s second film as auteur par excellence–he’s listed as producer, writer, director, director of photography and editor (who did the catering?)–might have been far worse in the two-hour plus version that was so savagely ridiculed when it premiered at Cannes last year. But “The Brown Bunny” is quite bad enough in the 92-minute recut that’s now being released. The technically ragged, gloomily brooding road movie is a reasonably coherent story of grief and remorse, probably clearer and more accessible than it was before. Unfortunately, the grief and remorse will be felt more by the audience than the characters.
As far as plot is concerned, there’s not much to “Bunny.” Bud Clay (Gallo), a haggard, depressed motorcyclist, loses a race on the east coast and then makes the cross-country drive back to California. There are a few episodes amid the endless traversal of highway, some of them person-to-person: Bud convinces a young woman clerking at a convenience store to come with him, then leaves while she packs for the trip; he stops briefly in Ohio to visit the addled parents of a childhood neighbor named Daisy, whom they haven’t heard from in a long while (and who, we’re told, kept the titular rabbit as a pet); he goes to a St. Louis pet store, where he examines some more rabbits; he pauses at a rest stop where he approaches a woman apparently even more despondent than he (Cheryl Tiegs) but, once again, departs before anything happens between them; he visits the Bonneville Salt Flats, where he takes his bike for an existential spin; he trolls along the streets of Las Vegas, toying with the idea of having sex with a prostitute but ultimately deciding against it. Finally, back in a California hotel, he’s visited by Daisy (Chloe Sevigny), obviously a drug addict, who performs oral sex on him in a prolonged and graphic scene. But a flashback showing how he and she last parted indicates that her appearance is not all that it seems, and explains why all the women he’s been attracted to during his trek have been named, like her, after flowers.
There are a few moments in “Brown Bunny” that come close to being interesting, if not completely effective. The Ohio conversation with Daisy’s mother, who seems to be suffering from mental impairment as well as a sadness as deep as Clay’s, and whose husband, sitting mutely nearby, appears in the last stages of Alzheimer’s, has a certain poignance, even though the pauses seem endless and the actual content never truly illuminates anything. The Bonneville Flats sequence has a certain luminous beauty. The brief time Bud spends with a loquacious Las Vegas streetwalker has a naturalness that’s appealing in light of the pretentiously dirgelike quality of what surrounds it. But the flickers of perception are few and very brief. Most of the picture is tediously repetitive and pointless. Even in this reduced form, the shots of Bud driving along are excruciatingly dull, whether they consist of the camera offering us his point of view through the smeared, filthy windshield or have it focused (none too well) on the side of his face, so that one has a fine opportunity to study the precise contours of his right ear. The constant concentration on Gallo, moreover, gives the picture a narcissistic air; his preening and posturing make one think that he’s not so much interested in communicating something to other people as in just watching himself in a cinematic mirror. And the hotel room scene between him and Sevigny, cruelly extended and uncomfortable to watch, certainly satisfies no one but him.
Certainly if it were thirty minutes longer, “The Brown Bunny” would be even harder to take. But in its present form it has very little interest other than as a picture that will go down in the history books as an independent equivalent of a studio disaster like “Heaven’s Gate,” an exercise in gross self-indulgence that demonstrates that one can make a catastrophe just as well on no money as with a bloated budget. All one needs is a large ego.