I watched Bully because Roger Ebert said it “calls the bluff of movies that pretend to be about murder but are really about entertainment”. It’s based on the real murder of Bobby Kent in 1993 by people he’d bullied and raped, and others who were along for the ride. Ebert goes on: “His film has all the sadness and shabbiness, all the mess and cruelty and thoughtless stupidity of the real thing… this is not about the evil sadist and the release of revenge; it’s about how a group of kids will do something no single member is capable of. And about the moral void these kids inhabit.”
His description of the film immediately brought to mind American Animals, one of the best films of this decade. It isn’t about murder, but it is about a violent crime, committed by young people who are propelled forward as much by the interpersonal dynamics of their group as their stated motives. It takes the violence its characters commit extremely seriously, setting you up to expect stylised film violence and then dropping you suddenly and horribly in something upsettingly realistic. I didn’t go into Bully hoping it would be the same as American Animals, but I like seeing how different films – and filmmakers – handle similar subject matter and themes.
Bully is a great film in almost every way. The cast are phenomenal, especially Rachel Miner and Brad Renfro as Lisa and Marty, the ringleaders of the murder. The camera stalks moodily through Florida suburbs perched precariously on the edge of the Everglades, everything cast in light and shadow by the harsh streetlamps. You can almost hear the ambient buzz of electricity through overhead wires. The screenplay avoids the pitfalls of many realistic treatments of teen life written by adults. It isn’t full of outdated slang. The teenagers sound like teenagers, especially in all the ways teenagers try not to sound like teenagers. It’s a great film. Almost.
The co-writer of that screenplay, David McKenna, disowned the finished film, writing in a furious letter to the director and producers that it “resembled a porno” with “unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation [and] no character development”. He is credited as Zachary Long in the finished film. I don’t agree with McKenna or others who gave Bully harshly negative reviews, like David Edelstein. But I also don’t agree with Roger Ebert, who said it was basically perfect.
It’s not perfect. It’s almost perfect. But it’s too goddamn creepy to get there.
- Bully has a fairly simple plot: Lisa Connelly and Marty Puccio, a pair of high school dropouts, meet and begin dating. Marty’s best friend, Bobby Kent, is a psychopathic upper-class bully who beats Marty, forces him to work as a phone sex operator, rapes Lisa and her friend Ali, and does other various violent and perverse things to other undeserving people. Lisa floats the idea of murdering Bobby. Eventually, she persuades Marty, Ali and some other people to participate in the murder. After an abortive first attempt by Lisa to shoot Bobby, they kill him in a group attack that spreads the culpability around. Almost immediately, a mix of guilt and self-preservation leads to confessions, everyone is arrested and goes to prison. But the plot itself isn’t what fascinates about Bully. The real drama in this film is the drama of moral choice.
- Stories about moral choice are some of my favourites in any medium. Not stories about big dramatic ethical dilemmas, like Sophie’s Choice or My Sister’s Keeper, but stories about the ordinary human process of moral decision-making, close studies of the conscience (or lack thereof) in action. Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Vice Principals and Review, A Clockwork Orange and American Animals. The minutiae of how people look at the paths laid out before them and weigh their moral instincts against baser ones: vanity, pettiness, selfishness, greed, cowardice. Most of the time, it’s about people sliding headfirst into the darkness, pretending all the while that’s not what’s happening, though some are, mercifully, about reaching toward the light. It’s not just the build-up to the decision either, but the aftermath, and how it feeds into the next decision. How Walter White’s transformation into (or revelation as) a monster happens one step at a time without a clear moment where he definitively breaks bad. How he rationalises each step to himself and others, even though he could never rationalise the entire journey. Something about these stories just connect with me, possibly because I am constantly analysing my own moral decision-making in real time and retrospect. When Bully is one of these stories, it’s fantastic.
- Bully is particularly good at portraying a very specific kind of bad moral decision-making that probably already has a technical name in game theory, but that I like to call “murder as first resort”. Bully is a literal story of murder as first resort, but a more familiar example would be cutting someone out of your life over a disagreement rather than trying to work it out. You could call it overreaction, but that denotes a snap decision. Murder as first resort is when you rule out less extreme options in favour of something more immediate or definitive in order to avoid the risk of discomfort or failure. The murderers in Bully could have pursued any number of less, well, murderous options. None of them try to involve their parents in their problems, except when Marty begs his father to move their entire family away from their neighbourhood – itself a pretty extreme option – without explaining why. Marty is too afraid of Bobby to cut him out of his life, but no one in the group offers to help him in any way except murder. Lisa increasingly argues for the murder as justified given the extent of Bobby’s crimes as the film continues, but it doesn’t seem sincere. She’s retroactively justifying the course of action she’s already committed to and trying to guilt everyone else into signing on. There is a brief discussion of just beating him up late in the film, but only by people trying to back out of the murder, and only raised as a question. They ask if murder is the plan or they’re just gonna rough him up some, and they clearly hope someone will say “yeah, we could just beat him up”, but no one ever does. The dynamic of the group simply propels the lethal choice forward.
- The group dynamic itself is the heart of the film. It’s genuinely brilliant how it delicately balances all the different motives at play as the group expands from Marty, Lisa and Ali to include Ali’s friends Heather and Donald, Lisa’s cousin Derek and a self-proclaimed hit man also called Derek. (I’ll call them by their surnames, Dzvirko and Kaufman respectively, to distinguish them from here.) Revenge is ultimately only part of the motive for Marty, Lisa and Ali. Marty and Dzvirko share a sense of wounded masculinity. Both live a directionless existence in dead-end jobs in an empty suburbia and feel responsible for failing to protect Lisa from Bobby. Marty also obviously feels his manhood undermined by his victimisation at Bobby’s hands. Lisa is pregnant and unsure whether the father is Marty or Bobby, since the latter didn’t use a condom when he raped her. Killing Bobby eliminates the risk of further contact due to his paternal rights. Her devotion to Marty is also in significant part because of low self-esteem and poor body image: that a buff hunk like Marty would be interested in someone with her chubby round face and visible body fat is almost as sexy to her as Marty himself. (Lisa is a super rich character and Rachel Miner’s performance is truly marvellous.) Kaufman is lying about his credentials as a criminal to play the big man and keeps doubling down so he doesn’t look like a chump. Heather and Donald are just along for the ride to a certain extent, though there’s an element of revenge-by-proxy for Heather, who was abused in the past. They all also share class resentment toward Bobby, the only one who gets to go to college and whose father is going to buy him his own business to run when he graduates. It’s all set up and laid out very well.
- This toxic brew of masculinity, trauma, guilt, fear and class resentment leads to the murder, though not inevitably. Pretty much everyone but Lisa tries to back out at some point – Lisa only backs out of being the one to pull the trigger – but the group disciplines them back into agreement. Kaufman’s macho act goads the other guys into affirming their own toughness. When the other guys show hesitation, Kaufman or Lisa calls them pussies, and when Kaufman shows hesitation, the others insinuate he’s a liar, so he doubles down. Everyone, including Ali, gets guilted by Lisa for not wanting to help avenge her rape, though she otherwise seems far more concerned by Bobby’s mistreatment of Marty than of her or Ali. Donald is desperate to show how much he loves Ali (he’s in an ambiguous throuple with her and Heather). Dzvirko is desperate to have friends. And none of them think it’s right that Bobby is gonna live a life of comfort and luxury after what he’s done. That’s the worst one of all, because they’re correct. It’s not right. Whenever one of them points that out, the rest of the group has no answer. None of them will dare say it’s also wrong to murder people.
- The murder itself is Bully’s big setpiece and it delivers much like the final heist in American Animals, by exposing the group’s own naivety over how easy it would be to pull off, both morally and logistically. They all hesitate. It’s way harder to kill Bobby than they expected. Donald stabs him in the neck, then Marty stabs him multiple further times and slits his throat, then Kaufman beats him over the head with a baseball bat. He seems dead, but they don’t check before Kaufman and Dzvirko throw him in the swamp, hoping his body will be eaten by alligators. Afterwards, the thought that he might have still been alive then and only died of drowning haunts Dzvirko, who otherwise did not directly participate in the murder. It’s an amazing scene and the sheer velocity with which the group falls apart afterward as the guilt and fear eats at them is stunning.
- Bully would be great if it was just this, and there’s lots more I love about it besides. It shows the characters listening to Eminem (the film takes place years later than the real murder) and playing violent video games without trying to connect them to the murder. There’s two wacky fast-talking kids at the arcade that Dzvirko frequents who are just delightful. It has a soft touch with the social context of the murder, letting the many sources of alienation in the characters’ lives hang in the air rather than focus in too much on any one thing to the exclusion of others. There are some bum notes – like a scene where the group is in a circle with the camera in the middle swinging around them and it just goes on and on and on – but it’s a damn good movie most of the time. And then there’s the sex stuff.
- Bully is, to put it lightly, full of sex and nudity of dubious narrative purpose. Lots of it is more than justified, since the sexual relationships of the characters – especially Lisa and Marty – are so central to the story. Much of Bobby’s abuse and violence is also sexual, so it’s fairly reasonable to include it when you want to get across how much a monster he is. But there’s also lots of less justifiable stuff, like the fact that everyone – male and female – is topless all the time. Sometimes the camera will just swoop along a character’s body, lingering on their thighs or tits or ass, for no reason. And, most egregiously, there’s a scene where Ali is getting a pedicure and we cut, inexplicably, to right between her thighs, looking at her crotch. She’s wearing the highest-cut Daisy Dukes in history and no underwear. Her pubic hair is visible. I am not a prude and I don’t think sexual content requires a clear narrative justification. Sex and nudity are ordinary features of human society and don’t need any special permission to exist in art. But this didn’t sit well with me and I don’t think it should.
- The sexual content of Bully was the main cause of debate over its merit at the time, and if anyone still talked about it, it would rightly remain in the spotlight. Roger Ebert defended it stridently, while David Edelstein slammed it. They debated it briefly in an exchange of letters published in Slate, where Edelstein was a critic. I don’t have time here to unpack everything in their reviews – it is honestly kind of breathtaking how many different ways both find to be wrong – but their comments on the sexual content perfectly set up my take, so let’s dig into that. Both centred their arguments about the validity of the sexual content on Clark. Ebert basically argued that the long shots of young, nubile bodies were just an extension of his interest in the lives of troubled youth: “if the director doesn’t have a strong personal feeling about material like this, he shouldn’t be making movies about it”. Edelstein compared Clark to Bobby (a literal rapist, you’ll remember) and called him “a middle-aged blowhard getting his rocks off while pretending to tell it like it is”. In his letter to Edelstein, Ebert argued lots of films show a similar lingering interest in naked youth, and it was unreasonable for Edelstein to single out a morally serious artist like Clark for special scorn. That may be true, but it’s an accusation of hypocrisy on Edelstein’s part, not a defense of the content of the movie. Ebert also argued Clark’s depiction of youth sexuality was accurate to real life, which Edelstein correctly pointed out was not at all relevant, since Bully is a film, not journalism. That last part gets closer to saying anything about the film than the rest, but most of the debate is useless because it’s about something neither can know – whether Larry Clark is a pervert or not.
- Ebert does hit on something when he points out that Clark is a morally serious artist with a sincere interest in the lives of young people. I don’t know Larry Clark’s mind better than any other critic, but Bully is, at its best, a searching look at contemporary youth through the lens of its characters that takes their actions very seriously. It’s just that, rather than a defense of the gratuitous nudity, it’s exactly this that explains why it’s so gross. What makes Bully great is the stark moral drama of its script, the close psychological study of its characters, how it captures a certain bleak suburban mood hanging in the air like poison gas. The film treats young people as people, like the works of J.D. Salinger and John Hughes and Greta Gerwig, until it doesn’t. The nudity actively undermines every humanistic instinct in the film by reducing the characters to just bodies to look at. If it were just a handful of shots, it would be one thing, but there’s so many. I don’t like to draw hard lines on issues like this, but, at the same time, the existence of grey doesn’t disprove the existence of black and white. Much of the sexual content in this film is potentially defensible or at least difficult to argue against coherently, but not in this volume and not at the point the camera is a half inch of material away from an upskirt in the middle of a pedicure. It’s the only major problem I have with Bully, but it’s such a big problem that it ruins the whole film. I could never recommend anyone watch it, even if I knew they were a pervert, and that’s about as devastating an indictment as I can make.