“Bully” establishes many of its themes in the opening minutes. This is a movie that begins with Brad Renfo looking directly into the camera requesting the audience perform passionate fellatio on him. That’s not the theme-establishing moment. Instead, it comes a second later when, from off-screen, his mother calls him to dinner, blissfully unaware of what’s happening in his bedroom. The opening credits play over one of Clark’s trademark, rolling tracking shots, showing dark clouds looming over suburbia.
Based on a true story, the film shows why a group of teenagers made the decision to murder one of their own. Marty is frequently physically beaten and cruelly manipulated by his “best friend,” Bobby Kent. Bobby is smart, educated, and motivated. Marty is a high school drop-out with a dead-end job, surfing being his only passion. When Marty meets Lisa, and promptly rolls into a serious, romantic relationship with her, Lisa and her friend Ali quickly become new targets of Bobby’s abuse. It’s not long before Lisa decides Bobby has to die, drawling her friends into the scheme.
The movie’s biggest asset is its fascinating central characters. Bobby Kent is a nuanced, complex sociopath. Much of his abuse towards Marty seems to steam from misdirected homoerotic desires. This idea is presented fairly blatantly. Bobby ogles Marty as he has sex, forces him to dance at a gay bar, makes a gay porn video with the intention of selling it, and, most blatantly, watches gay porn while sexually assaulting a girl. When Lisa enters the relationship, she becomes Bobby’s new favorite target of abuse. We don’t see much of it but we do see the bruises lining her body. Bobby is a dick to everyone. Despite his sadism, he is a smart kid, studying piano, about to enter college. Some times, his friendship with Marty seems genuine. Nick Stahl allows all the character’s contrasting details to coexist.
The movie is exhibit one for the late Brad Renfo’s ability as an actor. After sex with Lisa, he talks about his first experience with pot. It starts out funny but quickly becomes heart-breaking, as he describes Bobby abusing him even at an early age. Later on, Marty breaks down at the beach, weeping. The character hides sensitivity under a typical macho bravado. Renfo’s angst seems realistic. He flinches whenever Bobby moves towards him or when desperately arguing with his parents about moving. He’s trapped and, as the movie continues, he remains trapped. Rachel Miner is similarly fantastic as Lisa. In order to make the motivation for the murder seem realistic, we have to buy Lisa’s love for Bobby. Miner succeeds at this. As her nerves crack her up near the end, Miner is similarly successful, such as when she freaks out while burying a sandal. Both young actors are fantastic.
The supporting cast isn’t as strong. Bijou Philips doesn’t have a lot of range as an actress. While she does fine as a slutty, drugged-up party girl, she doesn’t carry a lot of dramatic weight. One of the movie’s biggest problems is that she’s weirdly nonchalant about her character’s sexual assault. Clark eventually uses Philips’ well during her nervous breakdown at the end, where her crack-up is intentionally played as a childish temper tantrum. Donny and Heather, the additional friends, are more-or-less comic relief. Donny is a perpetually stoned-out, sexed-up, tanned beach bunny with a totally empty head. His drug-addled attempts to accomplish anything are frequently amusing. Heather gets out of rehab and immediately gets high again. That character’s reaction to the murder is a fantastic moment though. Kelli Swaller is generally a stronger actor then Michael Pitt.
Leo Fitzpatrick, from “Kids,” has evolved greatly as an actor in the years between the two films. He plays the quote-unqoute “Hitman.” Even though the audience immediately recognizes him as a poser and a fake, he’s still the only guy who truly understands what’s happening. His monologue about working out alibis is intense. He even gets a few laughs, such as when sneering at the other teens or delivering the oddball line “Nature sucks.”
The movie never directly states that the kids’ behavior is a direct result of the irresponsible parents. Bobby’s sadism seems to be partially the result of his father being an authoritative, bossy jack-ass. He is brow-beaten by his father, folding under dad’s commands. Yet Dad never raises a finger, instead controlling his son with strong words and occasionally coming off as oddly affectionate. Heather delivers a fantastic monologue about her psychotic grandfather murdering her grandmother, directly connecting the incident with her own mother’s poor choice in men. Yet Clark seems to suggest the teens’ behavior is ultimately their own responsibility. He has a cameo in the film, playing a minor character’s dad, letting the teens know that they deserve whatever they get, much the same way Bobby “deserved to die” as a character said earlier.
The movie is also one of Clark’s most smoothly constructed films. It has none of the flagging pacing of that his other films. “Bully” builds extremely well. He maintains the gritty realism of his other films, such as in Ali’s harrowing rape scene where the punches hit extra hard. His direction is very smooth. The camera rotates around the teens when they first meet with the Hitman. The sequence of the murder is fantastically constructed. The music starts mounting as they plan on the beach, the tension rising the longer it goes on. Each act of violence is accompanied by a sickening note in the score. One of the girls crawls into the back of the car, the camera looking down at it, womb-like. Bobby is legitimately baffled by his best friend turning on him. Clark cuts away to hand-held, far-off shots of the city, adding to the frenzy. Voices shout, headlights go off and, finally, a baseball bat slams down. The music cuts out, ending one of the most disturbing and effectively made moment in the director’s entire career.
Fatboy Slim’s “Song for Shelter” is used extremely well here, the upbeat music contrasting with the teens’ growing suspicion and ultimate fate.
Clark’s direction is studio movie slick, while still maintaining his trademark grittiness. When his camera (inevitably) turns on the kids’ bodies, the movie can’t help but come off as exploitative. Clark seems particularly obsessed with Bijou Philip. Her crotch and ass are thrust into the camera blatantly on at least two occasions each. The one sex scene involving candle wax lingers on especially long. Young flesh is blatantly displayed during the gay club scene. There’s brief male full frontal nudity and repeated female full frontal nudity, including many long, sensual pans up Rachel Miner’s body. Whether the constant nudity comes as as skeezy, genuinely erotic, or distracting from the film’s more serious points is probably a matter of personal taste.
“Bully” works for me, as a character study, a thriller, and a meditation on criminal motivation. Clark’s pacing and direction is at its strongest. The young cast does incredible work. All the pieces come together to make it the filmmaker’s best film. [Grade: B+]