After a three year wait after his second film, Another Day in Paradise, which was a far more conventional film than his debut Kids, Clark combined the two styles to produce a film that took the gritty realism of Kids and wrapped it around a harrowing true story of abuse to form what still stands as his finest work.
Marty Puccio (Brad Renfro) and Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl) are best friends, the have been for as long as they can remember, but their relationship is probably rather unlike that you have with your oldest friend. Bobby is a bully, his angry domineering personality feeding off the control he wields over others. But he doesn’t just target the neighbourhood fat kid for some ritual ridicule and occasional physical punishment; he exerts his power over Marty at every available opportunity, making sure that Marty is never having a better time than him. His wounded psyche only seems happy when he is in complete control, if Marty is attracted to a girl, that’s the girl Bobby has to have, just so Marty can’t. He forces Marty to dance at gay bars and perform phone sex to pay for debauched evenings, despite having a rich father who provides him with a home that forms a safe haven for his drug taking and sexual encounters. Despite Bobby’s best efforts it seems Marty has found a girl he can love, and a girl that loves him – Lisa. She can’t bear to see him treated so inhumanely and soon her influence becomes a more powerful force in Marty’s life than Bobby’s hate could ever be.
Bobby’s bullying doesn’t end with Marty though, his self loathing driving his desire to have everyone else prove that they love him he forces himself upon frightened women, making them repeat like a mantra their admiration for his sexual prowess. He’s a horrific excuse for a human being, and probably doesn’t deserve to live, and soon Bobby’s victims decide that he certainly deserves to die. But despite his disgust at both Bobby’s treatment of him, and his acceptance of it, years of indoctrination make any action against Bobby a difficult prospect for Marty, however after Lisa recruits some friends, one of whom has been a victim of one of Bobby’s sadistic rapes, and starts to take advice from an alleged hit man for a local gang, events are no longer in his hands and matters start to
spiral out of control.
Bully is an immensely powerful film, its gravity forced upon you by its real life origins, and magnificently captured by Clark. Once again telling his story with young, largely unknown actors, and proving once again that if he has nothing else he has an incredible eye for discovering talent waiting to be released, the cast never leave you doubting the conviction, or lack thereof, of their characters. Nick Stahl is nothing short of terrifying as the abysmal Bobby, his repressed homosexuality driving the hatred he holds for himself and all around him. Unable to accept he is the very thing his upbringing has taught him to hate Bobby hides behind a mask of homophobia, brutalising anyone he suspects of seeing through his thin disguise. His trips to gay bars disguised as money making opportunities, as are his attempts at filming gay pornography – to sell to ‘sick’ sex shops for a fast buck – he forces Marty to become everything he wishes he could be. Unfortunately this transference also brings the transfer of hatred, his beatings of Marty becoming his personal catharsis of the gay demons he can’t expel from his own mind. However, even though he seems to hate his ‘best friend’ it’s clear he could never survive without him; if Marty goes Bobby will have to face up to who he really is.
Luckily for him Marty has no way out of the relationship, trapped in a home with a conservative family, who live with the disappointment their son has become. After dropping out of high school and quitting his beloved surfing competitions Marty has nothing left but Bobby, his parents won’t get him an apartment, he can’t get himself a decent job, he works – with Bobby – serving food at a local strip mall, barely making enough to survive, if it wasn’t for Bobby’s pimping he’d never have enough money to get high. But Lisa’s (Rachel Miner) arrival, only facilitated after Bobby strips him of his first choice Ali (Bijou Phillips), gives him new hope, and introduces him to a relationship fuelled by something better than hate and desperation, but she realises that they will never be together while Bobby watches over them. When she breaks some shocking news to Marty he goes ballistic, aping the treatment handed down to him by Bobby on Lisa, if something isn’t done soon Marty will be forever trapped in a cycle of violence. Brad Renfro, who started his career in Joel Schumacher’s The Client, proves that child actors can have a future, as his pained performance will leave you drained. Also a special mention is deserved by Leo Fitzpatrick, one of the stars of Kids, who appears here as the hit man, he’s in danger of stealing the whole film as he injects some fantastic black humour into his performance in-between displaying the frighteningly detached approach he has within his chosen profession.
The real Bobby Kent was the son of Iranian immigrants, and a wannabe gang member, but Clark wisely left these themes alone, distilling the story down to the real truth behind it without confusing matters with racial or gang related tensions. What is a stranger choice however is the depiction of Marty, as he in real life was far from the victim he is portrayed as here. While it is true he was subjected to frequent beatings and mental torment from Bobby, when the two of them weren’t fighting they were very much on the same page, their excessive steroid use leaving them overflowing with aggression – their favourite outlet for which was ritual humiliation and abuse of the mentally handicapped. By leaving out such details Clark has managed to craft a more compelling story, making it far easier for the audience to identify, and sympathise, with Marty, but every such omission causes the true story element to lose some of its edge. On a more positive note by choosing to focus on events leading up to Bobby’s murder, rather than balancing the film with the murder in the middle, really gives you time to grow attached to the characters, and sympathetic to their plight. In a canny move however, he switches his bias as soon as the murder occurs, despite being wholly sympathetic previously, making the audience feel the gang is justified in their actions, as soon as they happen you know – just like they do – that what they have done is wrong.
It’s these closing scenes that provide the most interesting moments of the film, as the murderous participants begin to unravel, expecting police around every corner, wondering if someone has rolled over for a deal, wondering if they should, and Marty’s exchange here with his brother is a genuinely touching moment. Being a true story the details of the case wouldn’t have come to light if somebody hadn’t been caught, so I don’t think I’m ruining anything to say that somebody does, and the final courtroom scene where the parents look on in awe - unable to believe everything that has happened behind their backs - is a striking moment. The kids continue to bicker, over whose fault it is they were caught, who snitched on who, seemingly unaware they are mere moments away from discovering if they’ll live or die for their crimes, it really demonstrates just how young, and foolish, these kids were.
As a true life account Bully does lack a certain journalistic impartiality, but as a movie it is remarkably difficult to find fault with, though if I had to be finicky I’d frown upon the slightly over-theatrical ending, as we see the sentences announced on screen some of the terms seem remarkably harsh, and it is left to an addendum after the film fades to black to inform us of which of those were drastically reduced on appeal, it not only feels like a bit of a cheap trick, but also reduces the shock factor quite considerably. But when the biggest criticism you can lay on a film is some slight over-theatricality you know you’re dealing with something special. Bully is clear evidence that Larry Clark is much more than his detractors would have you believe.
The anamorphic 1.85:1 image is far from the best you will ever have had on your TV, with the film’s relatively low budget written all over its somewhat grainy representation. Film Four have gained a reputation for putting out excellent small films, but all too often on poor discs, and this appears to be a case of simply taking any transfer they could get rather than searching for the best elements as there is a rather grubby print. Luckily it doesn’t detract from the film much as it was never intended to look pristine, but a better job could have been done with more effort.
Presented in its original Dolby Digital stereo Bully unfortunately doesn’t impress in the sound stakes either. Again the low budget rather limits the options for engrossing soundtracks, and this is largely a dialogue-oriented film, but the music never really leaps from the speakers to grab your attention.
Whilst the title leaves you expecting a few short snippets, this isn’t ‘a conversation with…’ after all there is actually rather a lot hiding in the innocuous title. Larry Clark, Brad Renfro, Nick Stahl, Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner, Leo Fitzpatrick, Daniel Franzese, Kelli Garner and Michael Pitt all have a collection of interview answers, and whilst they may be of the electronic press kit variety they total an hour of footage. One thing that becomes clear very quickly is that all the actors have huge amounts of respect for Larry Clark as a director, though Brad Renfro seems far more keen on Clark’s finished product than his working practices and strangely seems to have a real dislike for seeing on screen nudity. Some of the snippets, and almost inevitably some of the interviewees, are rather vacuous but Rachel Miner, Daniel Franzese and Kelli Garner all impress with articulate answers that show maturity beyond their years.
Rather than being a behind the scenes documentary this is a collection of B-Roll footage showing four different shooting locations. It’s interesting to watch Clark direct, as much of this footage is from between shooting, but watching people getting their hair and costumes adjusted and watching camera crews carrying equipment around is far less thrilling.
The cox claims there is one, but in addition to the disorienting trailer for Bully there are also trailers for The Warrior, Late Night Shopping, Croupier and Monsoon Wedding.
Like all of Clark’s films on DVD this does little to entice consumers into purchasing, it offers a great film at a low price, but even though there is some interesting extra content it does its best to disguise itself. Clark has said he has been asked to record a commentary for the film, but has not yet found the time, when that edition arrives (if it ever does) I’ll be first in line with my money, until then this disc will have to do, but the film certainly deserves the special edition treatment.