It was recently revealed that screenwriter David McKenna took his name off the movie “Bully” (taking the pseudonym “Zachary Long”). He believed that director Larry Clark’s finished film strayed from his goal to reveal a disturbing substrata of emotionally dead teens to became of leering, quasi-porn piece of exploitation. Interestingly, FT’s review of “Bully,” penned by Heather Wadowski, echoes McKenna’s feelings. (I guess you can’t please everyone.) But I think they — like most critics — have seriously misread this film.
(I will not bore readers by reiterating the film’s plot here or Wadowski’s review. Please visit bullythemovie.com for the film’s story/character details and read her piece on the FT site before proceeding.)
Wadowski begins her beating of “Bully” by doubting that Bobby’s abuse of Marty would be enough to drive him to murder his so-called childhood “friend” – the crux of the film’s drama. In fact, she jokingly belittles Marty’s plight. First, she references the initial shot of the film, in which Marty awkwardly and unenthusiastically engages in phone sex with another man while his mother can be heard in the other room calling him to dinner. Wadowski seemingly laughs it off, but in this simple shot Clark is very economically showing us that Marty’s world is being torn apart. We later see that best buddy Bobby has been forcefully pimping him out – not only for telephonic titillation, but violence-enforced forays to a local gay club where a humiliated Marty is forced to strip for cash that ends up in Bobby’s pockets. This is just the beginning, as Marty is then beaten, verbally threatened, and, later, apparently raped by Bobby as his subservient pal’s new girlfriend Lisa looks on. Knowing that he’s at the end of his emotional rope, Marty then tearfully begs his unwitting parents to move the family away from this secretly abusive hell. They refuse. Ignorant and directionless, he stews in his hatred and anger, releasing his pent-up emotions through drug abuse. A ticking time bomb if I ever saw one, Marty has plenty of well-founded motivation for murder, as he confesses to Lisa that this abuse “has been going on since we were little kids.”
Unfortunately, Wadowski only views Bobby’s attacks on Marty as isolated incidents tempered by “quick” apologies. (“You’re my best friend,” Bobby intones after giving poor Marty a few smashing blows to the head.) And while Wadowski may see Marty’s character as “wishy-washy,” the pattern is in fact something far more sinister: classic Battered Wife Syndrome. Bobby has made Marty his weeping bitch boy – too frightened to seek real help and desperate enough to kill.
Interestingly, Wadowski then complains that director Clark “uses almost a whole hour” to set up the main characters of the film. Er, would you rather have the cookie-cutter archetypes that litter most summer films? Marty and girlfriend Lisa’s relationship seems especially improbable to her. But it should seem improbable. They meet, f**k in the backseat of Bobby’s Camero, and she runs home to happily inform her incredulous mom that “I have a new boyfriend.” The payoff here is mom’s reaction. She can’t believe what she’s hearing, much like the audience can’t believe how Lisa can be so shallow and vapid. We learn through her reaction. Get it? It’s subtle character development, not poor filmmaking.
Both McKenna and Wadowski were disturbed by the film’s graphic depictions of sex and nudity. Granted, cinematographer Steve Gainer’s camera lingers on crotch, butt and full-frontal shots throughout “Bully,” but it’s a mistake to confuse this explicit coverage with eroticism.
Is this all just a “sorry excuse” for Clark “to show barely legal T and A every chance given”?
No, it’s a film about teen sexual politics. Clark and Gainer are providing an unflinching look at these warped teens as they see themselves and each other. Their overt lack of humility and easy willingness to debase themselves for any possible thrill reveals their complete emotional detachment. Despite identifying each other as “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” these hormone and drug fueled kids think nothing of licking, sucking or f*****g whatever’s handy, illustrating their inability to create true emotional bonds with anyone. The intrusive, revealing camera enhances this permissive mood, eschewing the teasing “hide and peek” depictions of teen sexuality on display in such multiplex tripe as “American Pie.” Instead, “Bully” offers up as much flesh as you can take and them some – every bruised and scarred inch of it. (That’s right, these aren’t “perfect” model teens as some critics assert. Yes, they have crooked teeth, zits and weight problems like the rest of us.)
One shot in particular focuses right in on manipulative nympho Ali’s a*s as she arrogantly strides toward Marty and Bobby. Well, the source of her power IS located right between those thighs. And the fashionably tattered butt-floss shorts? Tell me you haven’t seen a few pairs while strolling the mall. If anything, the audience should register the conflict between these “beautiful” teen bodies and the disturbingly ugly souls housed within them. And while Wadowski insists that “we don’t need to see them constantly screwing” for the audience to understand the plot, she again loses sight of that fact that sex is the black heart of “Bully.” Fired up by his latent homosexuality, Bobby the Sadist tries to control anyone within his sphere of power. Ali the Tease (and more) rubs everyone the right way to get whatever she wants. And Lisa the Manipulator uses her possible pregnancy to keep Marty pliable and under her thumb.
Wadowski’s final criticism, that “Bully” is a “borderline porno flick that only becomes a real movie in its third act” is especially telling in regard to what she expects from a film. This section includes the formation of the conspiracy of dunces determined to kill Bobby and his nasty, rasping death. Wadowski obviously wants plot and action – not characters or motivations.
For myself, it’s here that I find the film milking the suspense of the situation and then lingering over Bobby’s slow slaughter. “Bully” becomes somewhat banal. The murderous scene is emotional and gripping – I felt torn by my conflicting feelings about Bobby and his fate – but I stopped getting my kicks from such splatter years ago. The killing might as well have happened off camera, as these sick characters’ twisting, potholed road to ruin is far more interesting that their final destination.
Unfortunately, “Bully” found little audience support during its recent theatrical release, but video is a great medium for twisted gems like this one. Thanks, Larry Clark, for this festering little slice of suburban life: a perfect respite from 2001’s summer of predictable Hollywood programming.