As Roger Ebert noted in his scathing post-Cannes 2003 comments about Vincent Gallo’s latest film—and just like Chloë Sevigny’s already infamous, err, climactic performance—The Brown Bunny sucks. The actor-director’s excruciating mood piece tracks miserable loner Bud Clay (Gallo) as he travels across the country in a ‘70s-era black van to reunite with his estranged girlfriend Daisy (Sevigny) in Los Angeles. A wearisome, affected amalgamation of Monte Hellman’s prototypical road movie Two-Lane Blacktop and Todd Louiso’s insufferable mope-fest Love Liza, Gallo’s misfire is a work of staggering dullness that, from its somber opening scene in which Bud loses a motorcycle race, repeatedly foreshadows the futility of the main character’s odyssey toward his desperately desired goal.
Gallo (who serves not only as director, writer, producer, and editor, but also as one of its cinematographers) shoots his deliberately sluggish film with a combination of stark close-ups meant to reflect Bud’s fractured psychological and emotional state—he’s as caged by the past as the titular rabbit seen at a pet store—and monotonous static setups which provide interminable views of the nation’s highways through his van’s bird shit-stained windshield. Gallo strives to create a sense of existential malaise through these vistas of dusty suburban streets and rain-swept interstate thoroughfares, which are thinly populated by anonymous vehicles and glassy-eyed lost souls. However, the actual, infuriating result, rendered redundant by the experiences of anyone over the age of ten, is that Gallo insipidly expresses what it feels like to sit in the front seat of a moving car.
Though the film’s conclusion sheds light on the frustratingly opaque events that precede it, The Brown Bunny‘s narrative is nearly Seinfeldian: here, truly, is a film in which virtually nothing happens. Strewn amid lethargic shots of Bud using a urinal, washing his face and sleeping, we’re presented with flashbacks to happy times with Daisy and our tortured protagonist’s three encounters with the female persuasion—a young gas station attendant (Anna Vareschi), a silent supermodel (Cheryl Tiegs, looking more weathered than one thought possible), and a street corner hooker (Elizabeth Blake)—which all, in subtle ways, reflect aspects of Bud’s failed relationship with Daisy. But this stab at purely emotive cinema, where the camera’s longing gaze, expressive blues and folk music (featuring melancholic tracks by Buffalo Springfield and Jackson C. Frank), and scant dialogue convey a decidedly un-melodramatic, unadulterated sense of feeling, is a washout, since Gallo’s film is so pathologically self-conscious and pretentious that it would be hysterical if not for its exasperating tediousness.
After its mysterious build-up (Is Daisy with another man? Is she a whore? A junkie?), Bud’s arrival in Los Angeles and encounter with his former lover reveals the overpowering guilt that has driven this torpid excursion through America. Yet whereas the revelatory finale should pack a visceral punch, Gallo instead muddles his character’s confrontation with the past by resorting to the film’s controversial carnal trump card: a graphic oral sex scene between Bud and Daisy that’s explosive only in a physical sense. Bud’s tormented comments to Daisy while receiving such pleasure—which amount to severe, distressed demands of faithfulness punctuated by groans of pleasure—not only elicit chuckles; they dilute the intensity of this culmination, and expulsive release, of the character’s long-gestating agony. The Brown Bunny may peak with Sevigny’s act of fellatio, but the irony is that Gallo’s indulgent film ultimately feels like one giant act of cinematic self-gratification.