Bully (2001)
By: Julian on February 29, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
DVD
Siren Visual Entertainment (Australia). All Regions, PAL. 1.78:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 5.1. 108 minutes
The Movie
Credits
Directed by: Larry Clark
Cast: Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl, Rachel Miner, Bijou Phillips
Screenplay: Roger Pullis, Zachary Long
Country: USA
I remember being fairly interested in the work of Larry Clark after the whole Ken Park fiasco of 2002, when the film was vilified by Catholic puritans and nanny state supporters, and banned by the OFLC. However, I was quickly led to believe that not only was Clark's work controversial and exploitative, but it was plain bad. The adjectives 'dirty', 'hack' and even 'paedophiliac' were used when describing Clark's résumé. So I left it at that. After reviewing Ken Park, my interest in Clark piqued once more. Bully is Clark's third feature as director, after Kids and Another Day in Paradise, and is as hard-hitting as his maligned follow-up.

Based on a true story, Bully tells the story of the demographic that Clark focuses on the most – youths. Brad Renfro plays Marty Puccio, a mild-mannered surfer caught in the talons of perennial bully Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl). Kent is a genuine arsehole – he pimps Marty out as a dancer in a homosexual bar, abuses Marty's girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner) and, in the height of his sadism, rapes his own girlfriend Ali (Bijou Phillips) while watching gay porn. The rape is the final straw and the trio plot to be done with Bobby Kent – but how to do it? Lisa is the main conspirator in the plans and after gaining the support of Marty, she enlists the help of her friends – the overzealous loser Donny, his girlfriend Heather and her cousin Derek, the latter of whom is reluctant to have any part in the killing, but is eager to prove himself. With the aid of a mysterious Mafia hitman whom one of the clique are acquainted with, they meticulously plan every detail of the killing – from what weapons to use, to what code words would prompt the execution.

When the killing finally does take place, things become tragically undone. There's no easy way to kill a man, no clean way – and Bully also presents the question, "does anyone deserve to die?" It's a film that takes great pleasure in wobbling our moral compass, making us rethink who we champion and who we antagonise. Clark directs with style and flair, and this is probably his most conventional film to date – Natural Born Killers and Transformers producer Don Murphy was involved, which may have lent Bully its slick, A-grade aesthetic. However, Bully is not without flaws. Screenwriters David McKenna and Roger Pullis, who adapted their script from Jim Schultze's true-crime book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge, failed to develop Kent's character evenly – when the murder is being plotted, Kent is formidable and mean as all fuck; otherwise, he's just a mild annoyance. However, this may also be a device that serves to make us question whether the pimping, raping, abusive character depicted so vividly on-screen is deserving of death. After all, Clark reminds us, is anyone?

Bully is a considerably different work to Clark's follow-up Ken Park for a number of reasons – first, while we are dealing with youth issues and dire ones at that, the families that the teenage characters come from are fairly – well, normal. And, with the obvious exception of the Hitman, Bobby and Lisa, the kids themselves are normal. Irresponsible, sure – they're having sex, drinking, using dope and popping acid on a regular basis – but it isn't too much of a stretch of the imagination to acknowledge that this is not only happening, but also probably a regular thing among eighteen and nineteen year olds. This sets Bully aside in the Clark oeuvre as one of his most mature works yet, trading the hysterics and OTT-soapie antics for some real, gritty drama. Clark directs his actors well and, echoing Tarantino with Pulp Fiction, has a good eye for upcoming stardom – Renfro is compelling in his submissive role and Miner equally so in her dominating one. The real let down has to be Nick Stahl, who alternates between the engrossing and the downright lame performance-wise. This could certainly be down to some shoddy scriptwriting, as I've spoken about above, or even intentional on the writers' part. If the latter is the case, though, it certainly doesn't work.

The film was shot in twenty-three days and was not without its issues – Renfro was jailed the night before filming commenced for attempting to steal a yacht (he got out with $10 000 bail), Bijou Phillips chucked a nauseatingly sanctimonious Sharon Stone on Clark with one of her revealing crotch shots (as if she didn't know…), and screenwriter David McKenna removed his name from Bully as both a producer and writer, instead utilising his pseudonym 'Zachary Long'. His reasons, outlined in a letter to Clark and Murphy, was that the film was "revolting, offensive and childish… it much more closely resembles a porno. Unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation, no character development, and horrible acting." These claims were pretty ridiculous and insulting for all concerned (though there's no recorded response to McKenna's letter, which has been published on the Internet), not to mention flat-out narcissistic. The film is sexually explicit to be sure, but McKenna's assertion that the sex is gratuitous, and merely embellishes a hollow film is absurd. Clark filmed a picture that displays the nihilism and amorality of an extreme teenage world – not a normative one, sure, and perhaps not the one that McKenna chose to explicitly portray, but an extreme case. A case in which youths have been put into extraordinary circumstances. This is a point that cannot be forgotten when watching a Clark film. While he isn't necessarily interested in showing anything but extremes in his pictures, he does so, for the most part, unexploitatively.

The true story upon which Bully was based took place in Florida in 1993. The real Bobby Kent was of Iranian descent and allegedly maintained a homoerotic (though not necessarily sexual) relationship with Puccio, two aspects of the tale that Clark regrets not having taken advantage of. In an interview with the director after Bully was released, Clark complains that the screenplay was "homogenised, Hollywoodised. All the gay stuff was gone and Bobby was the devil and Marty was the saint." However, if someone was to present such a crime so bleakly and realistically, it would be Clark – the murder, as it took place in the film, very closely resembled how it really went down on the edge of the lonely Miami Everglades. Many details remained the same in the film – from the names of the characters, to their sentences, announced in a pre-credits epilogue (Puccio's was embellished to 'death by electric chair' for emotional effect, he got life).

Brad Renfro died on January 15, 2008, aged twenty-five. A long time drink and drug abuser, the cause of his death is currently unascertained, though speculation is rife. He was a fine young actor, and had palpable stage presence in Bully and his other roles, including the Stephen King-based thriller Apt Pupil. He will be missed.
Video
Bully is presented in the 1:78:1 aspect ratio. The picture looks great however being a fairly top-notch, recent production, there's no reason why it shouldn't.
Audio
One English language track, presented in 5.1. I really had to gun the volume to listen to some of the lengthy exchanges of dialogue though.
Extra Features
Utter shite. A trailer for some Siren anime release. What the fuck?
The Verdict
Wow. Whatever preconceived ideas I had about Clark being a dirty old rip-off merchant were totally smashed with Bully. A hard-hitting, depressing take on teen murder as no other filmmaker would have the balls to realise.
Movie Score
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