Roads to Perdition: Vincent Gallo’s "The Brown Bunny"

Exploring the most notorious film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.
Michael Pattison

MUBI is showing Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny (2003) May 14 - June 13, 2016 in the UK.

And I know that I won’t ever change
’Cause we’ve been friends
Through rain or shine
For such a long, long time

— Gordon Lightfoot, “Beautiful” 

Autumn’s leaving and winter’s coming
I think that I’ll be moving along
I’ve got to leave her and find another
I’ve got to sing my heart’s true song

— Jackson C. Frank, “Milk and Honey”

Never mind length, feel the width. At just less than 90 minutes, The Brown Bunny is small enough for its many minutiae to grow big, sink deep, burn permanent imprints on the brain. Not a great deal happens in Vincent Gallo’s second feature. Motorcycle racer Bud Clay (Gallo) drives a van from New Hampshire, where he’s just failed to win a race, to Los Angeles, where he hopes to rekindle the seemingly fading flames of a long-term romance with Daisy (Chloë Sevigny), his childhood sweetheart whose floral name is painfully echoed in chance encounters with three other women en route. Between these, tarmac: Bud traverses non-places and interstate blacktop, with passing scenery and shifts in weather providing a natural variable to the fixed viewpoint of Gallo’s dashboard-mounted camera. 

That’s it, in essence. Oh, and there’s a lengthy scene of unsimulated fellatio at the end, in which Sevigny gives Gallo oral sex in some spookily bright motel room. But you already knew that: it’s the kind of pièce de résistance you can’t help but know and have an opinion about—the sort-of-gimmicky finale of an eternally overshadowed film, which Roger Ebert famously thumbs-downed after its press screening at Cannes in 2003, claiming it was the worst film ever to have been shown in the history of the festival. Rather disingenuously, Ebert alleged that the film had “created a scandal not because of sex, violence or politics, but simply because of its awfulness”—as if that final assessment wasn’t always in some way connected to those other qualities listed before it.

Gallo, one of those beautiful artists who critics are often quick to dismiss as narcissistic, validated their opinion of him by running a marketing campaign for the film’s theatrical release that included a giant blowjob-boasting billboard above Sunset Blvd. He also entered into a public back-and-forth with Ebert, though the critic’s knee-jerk putdown had sufficiently stung Gallo’s sensibilities that this apparently arrogant artist had, by the time of release, trimmed the film by a quarter of its original duration. Ebert approved the new cut, but Gallo’s film was still the kind where a simple synopsis could double as a critique. Geoff Andrew, Time Out: “what we mainly see are interminable shots of the freeway from the driver’s viewpoint, alternating with interminable shots of the moody ex-model’s profile of the driver himself.” 

Certainly, there’s something deliberately unexceptionable about all of this. The monotonous rhythms of being on the road; the repetition of multiple gas stops; the extreme claustrophobia of being inside one’s own headspace for so long, with rapidly changing topological terrains prompting shifts in what J.B. Priestley once referred to as the “skull cinema.” But The Brown Bunny seems to be no more self-indulgent than any art-house product from, say, Eastern Europe or South America. Indeed, the barely disguised irritation felt by many at Gallo’s decision to cast himself in the lead role is unreasonable given the default praise handed to, say, Romanian director Cristi Puiu for appearing in Aurora (2011), his own three-hour opus of everyday dreariness.

I first watched The Brown Bunny in January 2006, aged 18, and then twice more that year. On the third occasion, I watched it right after Paris, Texas (1984)—an appropriate self-made double-bill, given that both films are centered around male protagonists journeying across an American landscape in order to reconnect with love interests and to confront, or make amends for, previous wrongs. I wrote that The Brown Bunny was an “oddly beautiful, moving exploration of the self-destructive result of sexuality and guilt, which, stripped to its bare bones, is a road movie with an interesting closure; captivating for those who can take the director’s heavy self-indulgence.”

In adolescence, I loved it. Gallo’s film appealed to my cerebral attachment to melancholy, to a kind of maudlin vanity that I was then channeling into my own creative projects (including an inevitably abandoned novel, a cringe-inducing manifesto of self-vindication). Until last week I hadn’t seen the film in almost eight years. Watching it again reminded me, with all the self-combusting intensity of Priestley’s skull cinema, of just how beautiful those many car-bound landscape shots are—with Gallo’s 16mm grain (blown up to 35mm) made extra cruddy by the windscreen’s scattered constellations of bird droppings and bug splats.

Having also recently re-watched Badlands (1973), another road movie of sorts, I called to mind when watching Gallo’s film something that Bill Paxton said about Terrence Malick’s debut feature, about “moments that have nothing to do with the story, and yet everything to do with it. They’re not plot-orientated, but they have to do with the longing or the dreams of these characters.” These road-movie sequences belong in The Brown Bunny for a reason. Just as the carefully selected—and gorgeously mournful—soundtrack clues us in on the protagonist’s emotional state, the emphasis upon landscape elicits a mode of viewing as contemplative as anything that’s been fired out of the “slow cinema” canon.

Revisiting the film on the tenth anniversary of its release, Grantland’s Steven Hyden wrote that “The Brown Bunny is a movie about a person who spends a lot of time staring out of car windows, and it intends to evoke the feelings one has when spending a lot of time staring out of car windows.” In psycho-geographical terms, that’s as simple an observation as it is crucial. On the one hand, this is a geography graspable through its frequent highway signs—green rectangles denoting turnoffs for St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago—and through other signs welcoming visitors to Ohio. On the other hand, it is an unfathomable geography, divided into a picaresque patchwork by jump-cuts and slow fades.

The Brown Bunny isn’t merely the product of ego—and certainly not any more than franchise films made with budgets ten times that of this film. Likewise, though Gallo is present in every scene—seducing a small-town gas station employee (before ditching her), sipping a hot drink during a brief roadside respite, riding his Honda RS250 GP until it disappears into the heat-wobbled mirage of the Bonneville Salt Flats—it’s far from a self-loving portrait. As one article on Motorcycle Boy put it last year, “rarely such an unflattering portrait of a man has been shown on screen.”

Gallo’s Bud Clay is a deeply traumatized soul, a perishable human embarking upon a trek across a country that is at once naïve and irredeemable, intimate and vast, comforting and anguished. Bud is an innocent boy who says “I like your face” to a girl he’s just met, who seems spooked by the idea of any meaningful sexual chemistry. And he’s a tortured grownup who must come to terms with a grownup world, who can’t shirk images of happier times from his mind: sun-beaten kiss scenes that play out as silent snippets, flashbacks that precede the house party at which his pregnant girlfriend died of an overdose. The trick is it only seems pathetic, this impossible dilemma, between a man getting his own erection out on camera and then curling up like a fetus to cry like a baby, failing to understand how horrible things happen.

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