This review contains spoilers.
Larry Clark’s Bully is one of the greatest films of 2001. It is the best film that Clark has ever made, and it features a career-defining and heartbreaking performance from the late actor, Brad Renfro.
Bully tells a true story that is as horrifying as it is pathetic. This is the story of the murder of Bobby Kent – a murder that was carried out by none other than his best friend, Marty Puccio. But it’s not as simple as that. And Larry Clark pulls no punches in his attempt to recreate the events leading up to this act of violence.
Bobby Kent was no saint. In fact, he was a monster. He routinely harassed his longtime friend, Marty. He sexually assaulted Marty’s girlfriend, as well as another young woman that he dated for a brief time. He forced Marty to film gay pornographic videos with him. He also forced him to provide phone sex to some of the local gay men in their town. The physical abuse that he directed at Marty was truly appalling. Marty would often come home with fresh bruises, and would beg his parents to move to a different town. But his parents were content to stay at their South Florida home, regardless.
And that’s when Bobby’s friends and acquaintances came up with a plan.
One day on the beach, Marty’s girlfriend suggests that they murder Bobby in cold blood. Invite him to the swamp, distract him with sex and drugs, and when he least expects it, strike. Kill him, and dump his body in the canal. Let the alligators take care of the rest. And so that’s what they set out to do. And Larry Clark presents the act in full-on, graphic detail. His camera does not look away.
This is an ugly story, perhaps one that not everyone should see. But there are those who need to see it. The kids depicted in this film are empty. They are lost. They are, quite literally, dazed and confused. Their lives are aimless, and for many of them, there is no hope. The actors who portray them are all brilliant in their respective roles. Bijou Phillips, Michael Pitt, Rachel Minor, Kelli Garner, Leo Fitzpatrick, and finally, Nick Stahl as Bobby and Brad Renfro as Marty. Nick Stahl is absolutely chilling as Bobby Kent. Critics often talk of actors in “brave” performances, and this is a performance that actually earns that title. This is not a safe role. Bobby is a vicious bastard, and Stahl portrays him that way, but also retains a humanity that comes across in a select few scenes. Larry Clark doesn’t judge Bobby. He dares you to empathize with him, and at times, especially during the death sequence, it’s hard not to.
And then there’s Brad Renfro as Marty. Brad Renfro was one of the finest actors of this or any generation. He brought a raw intensity to his work that would emanate from his soul. The most memorable characters that he portrayed were merely extensions of himself. Renfro dealt with several demons throughout his entire life – namely drug addiction. It was a heroin overdose that ultimately claimed his young life in 2008. Larry Clark said in an interview that, prior to the shoot of Bully, he went to visit Renfro in Knoxville, TN. When he arrived, Renfro showed up with blood streaming down his arms. A former drug addict himself, Clark noticed the track marks, and immediately “kidnapped” Renfro and headed to Florida where the film was being shot, attempting to clean him up. A minder was on set at all times to keep an eye on Renfro, and Clark sent him to a rehabilitation program during off-hours. Around this time, Renfro escaped his hotel, and got arrested after attempting to steal a yacht. This was neither the first nor the last time that Renfro would find himself in trouble with the law. However, those close to Renfro will tell you that the man had a heart of gold. He was consistently heading towards the light, even though he wasn’t always successful. Those who knew him loved him dearly. Fans felt as if they knew him.
That tenderness and vulnerability shines through in nearly every performance of his career, and this is most certainly true of his work in Bully. Renfro never met the real Marty Puccio before the shoot. He opted instead to pull from his own psyche, as he states in an interview on the DVD for the film. Where portrayals of the victimized rebel without a cause are concerned, this is a definitive piece of work. Through Renfro, we are able to understand what would drive someone to such a abominable act. We are given access to those inner demons that drove a talented actor and human being to an untimely death. The film is all the more effective because of that.
Larry Clark is often accused of being exploitative. In most cases, this can’t be denied. His camera tends to gravitate towards naked teenage flesh in a way that seems unnecessary and gratuitous – and there are a few moments in Bully that are uncomfortable, to say the least. However, this is a film that does not lack substance. It is a fascinating and visceral exploration of a lost generation. Bully is a great film, despite its flaws – and there aren’t many.
See it for the impact that it will ultimately have on you. But most of all, see it for Brad Renfro, whose work here and elsewhere will never be forgotten.