A self-indulgent resurrection of ’70s road movie aesthetics outfitted with long static takes seemingly intent on outdoing “Gerry,” “The Brown Bunny” reps this year’s definition of navel-gazing cinema, although in this case crotch-gazing would be more accurate. A two-hour, cross-country mope about a lost love unadorned by such niceties as psychological insight, visual flair or (intentional) humor, Vincent Gallo’s big sophomore stumble after his promising debut with “Buffalo 66” in 1998 will attract a few ardent partisans among culty fans of minimalist indie cinema, and will stir curiosity among others for the late-innings oral sex scene performed by Chloe Sevigny. But as pic provoked one of the most derisive/dismissive reactions in memory in the Cannes competition, film’s mere presence there prompted major questioning, as this sort of thing would normally be found in Un Certain Regard or the Directors Fortnight.
After roaring through a motorcycle race for several minutes, Gallo’s Bud Clay loads his bike in his black van, begs a girl he meets in a roadside market to come with him to California, ditches her after they make out, and hits the highway, which for a very long time is frequently viewed from behind a windshield spotted with bug remains, dirt and bird crap.
Bud stops briefly to visit the parents of a girl, Daisy, he’s known since childhood, but reveals nothing about what’s become of her. But perhaps there’s something meaningful about the brown bunny in a cage that Daisy has left behind.
He drives on, through Ohio and Illinois to St. Louis (where he stops at a pet store to examine more bunnies), and then to a rest stop where, with scarcely a word, he starts making out with a woman (a seriously deglamorized Cheryl Tiegs) before losing interest and taking off again.
Most of the running time is devoted to driving, endless driving, as a morose Bud is viewed from the passenger seat p.o.v. with a changing landscape passing by, day slowly turning into night, Bud stopping for gas and barely able to contain his melancholy.
Songs inform that he’s got to get over his loss and learn to love someone else, and at the 45-minute point, in a hilarious variation on the “Raindrops Are Falling on My Head” sequence in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” we at last see Daisy (Sevigny), grabbing Bud’s crotch in a tandem bike ride reverie.
Long sequences are devoted to such fascinating events as Bud taking a shower; getting out of his van, going around the back, opening the rear door, removing a sweater and getting back in again; unloading his bike in order to take a fast ride across the Bonneville Salt Flats; cruising Vegas as various street corner girls ask him if he wants a date (he doesn’t), and trying to contact Daisy once he arrives in L.A.
At the 90-minute mark, Daisy finally does turn up, and long climactic scene is set in Bud’s white, brightly lit hotel room as the two struggle to work out their mutually hurt feelings over their long-ago split. Part of this involves Daisy’s guilt over a betrayal and Bud’s desire to make her submit to his wishes — hence the fellatio scene, which goes on for about three minutes, certainly looks real and has a definite humiliation angle. Related flashbacks reveal what brought the couple to their impasse.
Employing deliberately rough visuals, often harsh ambient sounds and uglifying shooting of faces, Gallo the director-cinematographer conjures up explicit memories of such counter-culture road pics as “Two-Lane Blacktop” and “Easy Rider” (the latter explicitly so in the final scene), as filtered through a modernist, apolitical perspective. But while the film is successfully minimalistic, it is infinitely more simplistic, trading in mood and impressions without having an idea in its head. Final bunny shot is a hoot.
There is an undeniable minor element of sweetness to the picture that stems partly from Gallo’s wounded, often pleading emotionalism in the role and a bit from its extreme, helpless inarticulateness. But one reasonably hoped for an advance, not a wholesale retreat, after the sometimes wacky humor and interesting ensemble work of “Buffalo 66,” as this road reps a dead-end.