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 It isn’t full of outdated slang.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.