Anyone who thinks that the primary function of art is to make sense of our lives will be disappointed by Bully, Larry Clark's true-crime movie about a group of Florida teenagers who murdered one of their friends because he was a huge asshole. But anyone who thinks that the primary function of art is to show us our lives should be pleased, even enthralled. As he did in Kids, his controversial excursion into the wilds of lower Manhattan's youth culture, Clark gives us a look at today's drug-dazed, sex-crazed teens that's so seemingly on the money it could pass as an ethnological report. And then, when it comes time for the Conclusion section of his report, he suddenly draws a complete, utter blank.
Which is fine, up to a point. Adhering to Jim Schutze's 1998 book about the murder case almost page by page, Clark turns the text into texture. We find ourselves wallowing in the minutiae of these kids' lives ' the way they run their fingers through their greasy hair, the way they hang their bodies out of their clothes, the way they throw words like "bitch" and "fuck" around. Oh, and the way they have sex. Through his photography and movies, Clark has become our Rembrandt of teenage sex, fussing over underwear elastic like it was the pleated folds of a Dutch burgher's collar. The sex scenes in Bully are hot as hell ' guiltily so, since the participants barely seem old enough to drive. Then there's the rape scene....
Out of this miasma of sex, drugs and hanging around emerges a storyline about two guys who've been friends since almost the day they were born. But it's an abusive friendship warped by one of the guy's unacknowledged desire for the other. Although he never quite convinces you that he has the strength and charisma to push an entire clique of friends around, Nick Stahl certainly has the jerk part down as Bobby, the college-bound suburbanite who all but leads his friend Marty around on a leash. And Brad Renfro, as Marty, has the implosive anger down. Like a baby chick that's never quite pecked its way out of the shell, Marty's too unformed ' and too stupid ' to resist Bobby's "charm."
It's Marty's new girlfriend, Lisa (Rachel Miner), who sets the murder plot in motion. Lisa seems pretty stupid, too. Or is she just blank, a moral zero? We don't really get to know. And part of me wants to salute Clark because he refuses to do the old social-worker number on these kids. But another part of me thinks the movie's a cop-out ' that Clark's the one who lacks a moral dimension. He does manage to point a finger at the kids' parents, who, though there, are also not there; they don't see what's right in front of them. But what an old, dull saw that is! At once engaging and enraging, Bully takes us on a thrill ride, treats us to a thrill kill and then drops us off at home, wondering what the hell just happened to us.
Then again, most movies never even leave the theater.