Monday, November 18, 2013

Bully (2001)

Larry Clark isn’t exactly known for his subtlety. If there’s any artist that defines the word “polarizing” its Clark, going all the way back to the raw documentation of teenage drug use and sexuality in his 1971 photography book Tulsa and it follow up Teenage Lust in 1983. Clark’s uncompromising style translated over to film with Kids (1995), a film that left not only America but many around the world feeling completely blindsided and its a film that’s still as dividing as it was when it was first released. In dealing with such difficult subject matter, Clark has earned a loyal following of supporters who readily praise his fearlessness is exposing certain elements of society that some would rather deny the existence of, yet it has also earned him an army of detractors who find his provocative material, to put it mildly, very problematic. Clark may have followed up Kids with the cool James Woods led Another Day In Paradise (1998) but in spirit, 2001’s Bully was the true follow up to Kids. Based on the real life 1993 murder of Florida teenager Bobby Kent, an event which inspirited the 1998 true crime bestseller Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge by Jim Schutze, Bully saw Clark continuing his favorite theme of wasted youth in an even darker fashion resulting in one of the most full on revenge flicks in recent memory.

Hollywood, Florida teens Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl) have been best friends for years although ever since the beginning of their friendship Marty has been the target of constant verbal and physical abuse from Bobby which has only gotten worse throughout the years with Bobby even turning his attention to Marty’s new girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner), even sexually assaulting her. Fed up with Bobby’s behavior, Lisa convinces Marty that enough is enough and together along with friends Ali (Bijou Phillips), whom Bobby also raped, Donny (Michael Pitt), Heather (Kelli Garner), Lisa’s cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese) and a local criminal rumored to be a hitman (Leo Fitzpatrick), the group hatches a plan to finally put an end to Bobby’s torments.

With its endless barrage of teens behaving badly, indulging in drugs, sex and featuring a particularly vicious murder scene it would be easy to classify Bully as pure exploitation but doing so would be a serious misreading of the film. While its true that the film is unflinching in its presentation (and in all honestly there are some shots in the film that are rather exploitive) its important to note that these very “sensationalistic” aspects are crucial to point the film was trying to make. The film may center around a murder, true, but the film is about so much more than just a murder, its equally about the lives of all those involved. What’s interesting about Bully is that unlike in Kids where only one parent was present, here Clark introduces the parents and families and exposes the home and lives of the central characters, something he would do again in a much more disturbing fashion in his follow up film Ken Park (2002). Another important thing worth pointing out is that although certain points of the actual case that the film was based on were dramatized for the purposes of film, even if the film had been a work of total fiction it still would have felt as authentic as possible simply for the fact that things like happen virtually on a daily basis and people like the ones portrayed in the film actually do exist, and naturally Clark’s presentation, aside from a few dizzying camera maneuvers and edits, is no-frills.

The late Brad Renfro turns in a brilliant performance as the tortured Marty. This is a kid who’s always on defense, only letting his guard down when not in the presence of Bobby. There is a sense of hesitation to everything he does and when the years of bottled up emotions finally explodes the results are gut-wrenching, particularly in a stand out sequence involving him and Miner when they decide something drastic has to be done about Bobby. On the complete opposite end of the spectrum is Nick Stahl who (appropriately) approached the role of Bobby with such a sickening arrogance his character becomes detestable within the first five minutes of the film. The contrast between him and Renfro couldn’t have been more perfect making every minute of screen time they share together instantly uncomfortable. The film is all around flawlessly cast with Rachel Miner, Bijou Phillips, Daniel Franzese and Leo Fitzpatrick all putting on clinics but perhaps the most telling performances come from Michael Pitt and Kelli Garner, the later who’s turn in the film isn’t celebrated nearly as much as it should be. What makes the eternally stoned characters of Donny and Heather stand out so much is the fact that when their introduced they’ve already reached the point that the rest of these kids would have probably ended up had the murder not drastically altered their lives, virtually brain fried, and commendably both Pitt and Garner never once go overboard or venture into “try too hard” territory in their portrayals.    

This past July marked the 20th anniversary of the actual murder of Bobby Kent and funnily enough one of the members of the so called “Broward Seven”, Alice Willis found herself back in the news a few months prior on charges of parole violation for allegedly providing police with a false address. She was first released from prison in 2001. Along with Willis, Lisa Connelly, Derek Dzvirko and Heather Swallers have all been released from prison for their roles in the crime, Connelly in 2004, Dzvirko in 1998 and Swallers in 1999. Marty Puccio is currently severing a life sentence which was originally a death sentence until it was overturned in 1997 along with Donald Semenec and Derek Kaufman the supposed “hitman”. The case was also featured in a 2001 episode of A&E’s true crime documentary series American Justice. Its really a fascinating story and again, although various elements of the case were dramatized in the film in the grand scheme of things it really is chillingly accurate for the most part, and considering the cast of characters involved Clark was the perfect director for this type of story, and as is the case with all of Clark‘s films whether that’s a good or bad thing is bound to cause an interesting debate. Bully might not be for everyone, true, but its unquestionably a profound statement from one of cinema’s most audacious provocateurs.  

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