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DIR: Larry Clark
What’s It All About?
The film is based on the true story of the murder of Bobby Kent. Bobby’s friend Marty Puccio, his girlfriend Lisa Connelly and several of her friends (along with a ‘hitman’ they knew) killed Kent because he was abusive to Marty and to the girls. The film shows those abusive relationships, the badly executed murder, and the immediate, chaotic, aftermath leading up to the trial.
Why Haven’t You Seen It?
Larry Clark is not what you’d call an easy filmmaker to get along with, he’s acquired a reputation as merely an exploitative director, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s also easy to be rubbed the wrong way by many of his films; plotless, explicit tales of teenage sex and exploitation, complete with lingering images of nude, nubile young people. It’s not hard to see why he’s never reached the mainstream.
Why Should You See It?
Bully is easily the best of Larry Clark’s films, it is still very much Un Film de Larry Clark, indulging all his usual themes and favoured images, but it does so in service of a solid script, interesting (if despicable) characters, a riveting plot and a set of excellent performances.
I first saw Bully at the Venice Film Festival in 2001, it was one of the first films I saw there, and its energy and conviction knocked me out, mostly thanks to the intensely, disturbingly, real performances from the young cast. That’s still true. Brad Renfro, who died in 2008, aged just 25, was a sad loss to cinema; a fiery young talent who should have gone far, but instead descended into a haze of addiction. He’s electric here as the impotent Marty, a young man who is always the pawn, be it in his friend Bobby’s perverted schemes (such as having Marty dance for tips at a gay club) or in Lisa’s ill conceived plans to kill Bobby. The rage in him is palpable, particularly in the brilliant scene in which Lisa talks him into the plan.
The rest of the cast is equally good, if not better. Bijou Phillips is effective as Ali; Lisa’s slutty friend who ends up as the bait for Bobby to take, and Kelli Garner, just 16 here, also impresses as Ali’s druggie friend Heather. Daniel Franseze and Leo Fitzpatrick are great as peripheral figures – Lisa’s cousin and Ali’s ‘hitman’ friend respectively – drawn into the crime. As the victtim, Nick Stahl puts in a memorably loathsome turn as Bobby, perhaps one of the most viscerally loathsome characters ever put on screen. Stahl commits totally, never seeking to justify Bobby or pretend that he’s anything less than a hateful person, it’s a disturbingly real piece of acting. Among the support though it is Michael Pitt who really stands out. At this time I had only seen Pitt on Dawson’s Creek (which he hated), and so this performance, as Ali’s perma-tweaking boyfriend, was a revelation. Pitt is an outrageously funny bundle of druggy nerves here, and I have a feeling that much of his performance was improvised, such is the totally in the moment nature of it (watch the great scene where he rehearses how he’s going to introduce himself and Heather to Bobby, and particularly Kelli Garner’s reactions to him).
However, the film is stolen from under all of these fine performances by Rachel Miner, in her first really significant film role (and, sadly, she’s not had another really meaty movie role since). Miner is extraordinary as Lisa, playing her as a young woman so starved and desperate for love that she interprets even something as sickening as the near date rape Marty puts her through when they first meet as real affection and real connection. That’s how she allows us to see Lisa’s thought process, how she arrives at the idea that it is eminently reasonable to kill Bobby. Miner’s performance is constantly, credibly, evolving, and she also paints Lisa’s post crime panic in vivid detail in very little screen time. On this evidence it is a real travesty that Miner isn’t getting some of Hollywood’s meatiest and most demanding roles for young women (she’s still only 30), I remember it as being the best female performance I saw at Venice that year, and I’m surprised she didn’t add to her Stockholm Film Festival Best Actress prize there.
Larry Clark is a difficult filmmaker to defend because of his visual obsessions, and this film doesn’t make that conversation easy. Clark likes young people, he likes their bodies, likes uncovering them and showing them in as much detail as he can. Bully is an exploitative film, and it puts the focus relentlessly on its characters naked bodies. Miner is particularly objectified, with almost her every scene in the film’s first half involving some, and usually total, nudity. If you can look beyond that though, Bully is a well directed film, first of all you have to give Clark a lot of credit for the fantastic ensemble performances on display here, and for the utterly real feeling of the film as a whole, and there are also some effectively staged scenes here, particularly a discussion with the ‘Hitman’ and the murder itself. His best instinct is to let the film play out largely in long takes, letting the actors carry the load to the film’s great benefit. On the whole though, the film overcomes its director’s predilections thanks to the strength of the film’s plot, characters and performances.
Bully is a tough, explicit film. It shrinks from nothing; language, drugs, sex, rape, violence, all are depicted as part of the day to day lives of these troubled, stupid, kids. It’s bleak, depressing, and quite often brilliant. It’s probably, aside from documentary short Impaled, the only one of Clark’s films I’d recommend, but for my money this is one of the most underrated films of the last decade, and a must see.
The scene on the beach in which Lisa exploits Marty’s vulnerability (whether she realises it or not) and draws him into her plan to murder Bobby. Extraordinary acting from Renfro and Miner.
How Can You See It?
Both UK and US DVDs are available, and both should be pretty inexpensive now.
Next Week: A New Zealand horror film that isn’t by Peter Jackson… THE UGLY.