Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny” successfully pushes the limits of film. Often spurning conventionalities like plot, pacing and even dialogue, Gallo has created a work of art that is more emotion than story. It is stark, it is haunting, it is ineffable and beautiful.
The film follows Bud Clay (played by Gallo), a professional motorcyclist on a lonely and bizarre road trip across the country. As he drives from racetrack to racetrack, he seduces nearly every woman he comes into contact with, only to abandon them in despair the moment he wins them over. Bud is looking for something, and no matter where he searches, from gas stations in Ohio to street corners in Las Vegas, it eludes him.
Gradually, through brief memory sequences and a strange visit with the senile parents of a woman named Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), we find the missing piece: his lost love. It is a common theme, but while other films use it as the point of departure, Gallo chooses to focus on and deconstruct Bud’s pain. He trusts his audience enough to let the film progress without any sense of urgency or direction, allowing Bud to convey wordlessly every facet of his grief.
The cinematography — also Gallo’s work, along with the writing, the score and the editing — is wonderfully sparse. The camera’s presence is almost incidental. Shots feel offhand and uncomposed, sometimes cutting off pieces of a profile or denying glimpses of important objects and faces. Sometimes the focus is allowed to drift in and out, and occasionally Gallo forfeits the viewer’s vantage point to a dirty windshield or the dark of night.
The structure of the film, like its grainy look, feels unforced. Quiet, still shots of Bud thinking and long scenes of Bud driving on freeways may seem tedious on the surface, but those willing to lose themselves in the film will appreciate the monotony, emptiness and torment of Bud’s journey. Gallo finds brilliant ways of showing us the state of Bud’s isolation and loss: the silence between roars during a motorcycle race, sunlight trickling through his fingers that are drowned in shadow.
Gallo’s acting is as good as his directing; no gesture or expression is wasted. Sevigny sears during her brief appearances and proves she is one of the most daring actresses out there during the film’s infamous climax. The rest of the cast looks and feels organic, altogether lacking Hollywood shine. They are ruddy and unkempt, they suffer from bad dye-jobs and awkward clothing.
The film’s final scenes are brutally dense with conflicting emotions, jolting the viewer out of the reverie induced by the preceding hour. The sordid details of Bud and Daisy’s past contrast sublimely with the septic white of the hotel room where they are finally reunited.
The result of Gallo’s work is that for 93 minutes we are allowed to step into Bud’s mind. We sit next to him on the dingy seats of his truck and across from him in a plastic booth as he eats in a Chinese fast food restaurant. We feel his indecision and his longing as he picks girls up and, not finding Daisy in them, casts them away. When the last scene fades we are allowed to leave the prison of Bud’s grief, drained but profoundly affected.