Ferocious, intense and controversial, Larry Clark’s Bully encapsulates the director’s obsession with the ugly underbelly of youth culture like an out of control freight train.
Never one to shy away from controversy, Larry Clark delivers a brutally matter-of-fact retelling of the real life murder of Bobby Kent in 2001’s Bully. In 1993, seven friends plotted and carried out the murder of Kent, a man they despised for his emotional and physical abuse towards them. Kent was widely considered an upstanding, career-driven and polite citizen by his parents and other adults, while those young people who knew him in the neighbourhood, particularly his so-called best friend Marty Puccio, thought very differently.
Clark displays Kent (Nick Stahl) as a twenty-year-old living off a power trip, that being, to control his friend Marty (Brad Renfro) through emotional manipulation, bribery and threats often leading to physical violence. When Marty begins a relationship with Lisa (Rachel Milner), she becomes increasingly aware of Kent’s bullying nature. At one point, while she and Marty are making love, Kent bursts into the room, knocks Marty unconscious and rapes Lisa. Later she discovers she is pregnant and fears the baby might be Kent’s.
“Plotting to kill like a bunch of underage drinkers concocting a house party while their parents are holidaying in the Bahamas, Bully is a straightforward, unblemished depiction of boredom, adolescence and experimentation.”
Marty pleads with his parents to move – at one point, sat at the breakfast table with his family, he sports a black eye from one of Kent’s punches and asks his father to move to another state. He is told they do not intent to move simply because he is having trouble with friends. When Kent violently rapes Lisa’s friend Ali (Bijou Philips), the seed is laid for the group to plot Kent’s murder. They enlist the help of Ali’s boyfriend Donny (Michael Pitt), another friend Heather (Kelli Garner), Lisa’s tough cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese) and a supposed hit-man (Leo Fitzpatrick) to carry out the deed.
Led by strong performances from Stahl, Renfro and Milner, Clark seems just as interested in the group’s hedonistic excess as he is their plot to murder Kent. Indeed, it is this indefinable line between pleasure and pain, where the boundaries are muddied in a haze of drink and alcohol that leads to the group’s devastating act. Plotting to kill like a bunch of underage drinkers concocting a house party while their parents are holidaying in the Bahamas, Bully is a straightforward, unblemished depiction of boredom, adolescence and experimentation. Clark’s bland, naturalistic colour scheme echoes a bleary-eyed outlook on life, while his voyeuristic camera turns every vacant gaze into a sweaty search for the next sexually gratifying release.
Like their antics in the bedroom, the murder comes as a form of catharsis. A release for Marty from the bully, a release for the others similar to the hallucinogenic trip experienced through many mind-altering drugs. Perhaps what is most distressing in the murder is the sense that adolescence is finding its way in the world when the boundaries of right and wrong have broken irreparably. The distance these “kids” feel from their parents hints at an unworkable family structure, where domesticity is forcing young minds to retreat into a world governed by new rules.
Yet, the frightening thought occurs when every bullied child remembers the day he or she mused over a tormentor’s death. To escape the bully the only way conceivably possible. It puts the actual murder into context – Kent is an evil, scheming, detestable individual and his end appears justified. Yet, his murder is the culmination of experimentation and excess, another emotional high in the day-to-day pleasure-pain cycle. Thus, the chief motivation of the group’s murdering intent is the very same incendiary device behind Kent’s bullying nature. It is a self-defeating cycle on an endless, unstoppable journey to destruction.
Bully is uncompromising and unforgiving. It is also a terrific piece of film-making, capturing coming-of-age without any rose-tinted nostalgia associated with growing up. There’s a raw intensity to Clark’s film that is as penetrating and well-oiled as more wholesome films associated with the genre such as Stand By Me. With memorable performances from the entire cast – particularly Stahl’s borderline psychotic Kent, Renfro’s confused and downcast Marty (a sinister echo of the actor’s real life), and Pitt’s dizzy drug-addict Donny – Bully is an experience worth having, one not easily forgotten.