Misery, of course, not only loves company, but also is conveniently portable. That Vincent Gallo understands this much is clear: His much-maligned second feature, The Brown Bunny, takes the dolor of his semiautobiographical first, Buffalo ’66, on the road. Re-edited and shaved of nearly 30 minutes after its disastrous Cannes screening last year, Bunny is, believe it or not, poetic and devastating, its dreamy open highways even more suffocating than the beaten-down streets of the filmmaker’s hometown. Both of Gallo’s projects have been criticized as narcissistic—indeed, The Brown Bunny’s first credit practically screams that it was “written directed edited and produced” by him, and he also stars—but his cinematic alter egos are such sorry wretches, it’s hard to accuse the man of being vain.
The Brown Bunny tells the story of Bud Clay (Gallo), a motorcyclist and broken heart who’s driving cross-country to a race in California. Bud somewhat ludicrously seduces and then abandons a series of women during these travels—some young thing (Anna Vareschi) at a gas station with whom he pleads to come with him; a melancholy vision at a rest-stop picnic table (Cheryl Tiegs) whom he wordlessly consoles with kisses. Flashbacks hint at a recent romantic loss, however, which makes his five-day trip something more than an extended smoochfest: The journey is simultaneously sunny and dark, full of quiet but not peace, with infatuation but not love. With blue eyes that peek through his disheveled hair and the merest hint of lanky musculature under his T-shirt and jeans, Bud seems to be living in the saddest Calvin Klein ad ever.
Early on, Bud stops at the working-class home of some former neighbors, the now-elderly parents of an old flame. Nearly Lynchian, the scene is one of many examples of Gallo’s ability to gut you with awkwardness and pity: As a decrepit old man sits silently at one end of a kitchen table that might as well be in another world, Bud tries to get the frail red-haired mother (Mary Morasky) of his ex, Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), to remember him. Long silences dominate the squirm-inducing encounter, hanging especially heavy after Mom’s early, aching statement about her daughter: “I haven’t heard from her—she hasn’t called. I don’t know why she hasn’t called. I wish I knew why.”
The whole of The Brown Bunny is similarly spare and silent. With shots frequently positioned inside Bud’s van, trained on either the road or his far-off expression, you feel as if you’re taking the road trip with him, but this is one emphatically solo traveler: Dialogue is nearly nonexistent, and when Bud does speak, his utterances are almost unbearably lost-sounding. Gallo’s creepy, quiet magnetism morphs into a childlike vulnerability whenever Bud interacts with someone, from his crack-voiced “Please? Please? Please come with me?” to the gas-station girl, to his pathetically hopeful alert to a hotel’s front-desk clerk that Daisy might call or drop by, to a conversation with her in which he expresses his love with “I liked you the most my whole life. You’re the only person I liked.”
Infamously, the auteur’s supposed self-indulgence comes quite literally to a head near The Brown Bunny’s end. Out of context, Sevigny’s unsimulated oral-sex performance certainly smacks of director glorification, but anyone who can get beyond the knee-jerk shock of seeing a dick at the local multiplex should be able to acknowledge at least some of the scene’s power. Throughout the film—cinematography, naturally, by Gallo—prettiness serves to heighten Bud’s sense of loneliness and dislocation. Here, however, a soft-lighting coupling would have failed to underscore the pain of his and Daisy’s reunion. Instead, the act is messy and real and tinged with resentfulness, and it’s only postclimax that we discover why the two are apart. Gallo’s buildup to this moment yields a payoff so devastating, you’d have to be heartless to begrudge him a little stroking, ego- or otherwise.
Writer-director Enid Zentelis also loads plenty of misery into Evergreen, her feature debut, but the end-of-film pile-on is a bit more difficult to swallow. What begins as a hard-luck story of a struggling young mother and her embarrassed teenager eventually turns into melodrama as the bit players reveal their own dysfunctions in a lame attempt to show us how good Mom and daughter have it after all.
When Evergreen begins, Kate (Cara Seymour) is telling Henri (Addie Land) that their impending move to Grandma’s shack is only temporary, so she can work and save up to start a new life for them. Soon, they’re sharing a mattress in a leaky bedroom on the outskirts of some Pacific Northwest Nowheresville as Kate’s mother (Lynn Cohen) watches game shows on TV. Kate gets a job at the town’s makeup factory, and Henri settles into a new school, where she meets rich kid Chat Turly (Noah Fleiss). Though Chat offers her rides home in his new SUV, Henri has him drop her off in town, too mortified to admit where she lives.
Henri is also ashamed of her single, working-class mother, so when she meets Susan (Mary Kay Place) and Frank (Bruce Davison), Chat’s chipper parents, she lies when they ask what her parents do: Mom is a “beauty expert,” and her new boyfriend, a Native American casino worker (Gary Farmer) who’s built his own wheels, stands in as Henri’s “car expert” dad. Henri quickly becomes enamored with the Turlys’ luxe living quarters, fancy dinners, and shit-eating niceness, and as Kate tries to turn disciplinarian and nags Henri to find a job, too, the girl starts spending all her time with the seemingly happy family.
Though the stress of Kate and Henri’s new lifestyle and the tension in their relationship feel genuine, Zentelis’ unsubtle introduction of other conflicts does not. Grandma, who in an early scene seemed to be the kind of lonely old lady who aches every time a member of her family walks out the door, turns out to be an intolerant hothead, at one point hissing to Kate’s boyfriend, “I am from independent country of Latvia!” and then asking him in ridiculous broken English, “Are you type of guy who ever hit women and children?”
Smiley Susan also has a secret side, one that’s foreshadowed with only the mildest of hints before it’s revealed with a laughable smack: She sits at the computer and—da-da-dum!—calls up a self-help Web site on her own particular problem. Now we understand why Frank goes out and gets drunk every night. It’s while witnessing a thrashing, screaming, crying confrontation between perfect husband and perfect wife that Henri learns a Valuable Lesson—though, to be fair, watching Davison go batshit after his smug, if dead-on, performance is rather fun.
Evergreen’s acting, in fact, is its only uniform aspect, with Seymour, Land, Place, and Farmer all joining Davison in convincingly inhabiting their characters. In other respects, however, Zentelis’ small movie is too inconsistent to recommend: Her dialogue may be natural between parent and child, but it clunks whenever a couple of teenagers (or Grandma) are around, and the details of storytelling are sprinkled disproportionately—we know all about the Turlys, for example, but we never learn where Henri’s father is or why Kate is in her current fix. Evergreen’s press kit rather embarrassingly describes the narrative arc as Henri and her mother “looking down a road that turns bad instead of right,” which, come to think of it, probably isn’t really so wrong.CP