Bully is the most disturbing film I have seen in a very long time—not since I watched the almost completely ignored Godmoney in 1998 I have felt quite the same sense of unease.
The film covers a real incident in Florida in 1993. A group of friends agreed, in a manner of speaking, to kill a Bully. Bobby, the bully, abuses his ‘best friend’ Marty. Marty’s girlfriend, Lisa, spearheads the movement to kill the hostile Bobby whose violence toward women in general and Marty specifically upsets the group of slackers who, very loosely, form a sub-community. The story follows the violence, the various plans to kill Bobby, his murder, and the subsequent guilt that wracks some of the members of the posse. Three of them spill the beans and it ends with all of them arrested. The film ends with the penal sentence for all involved.
As most reviewers have pointed out, this film is not for those made uncomfortable by intimate violence, nudity, sex, sexuality, or foul language—Bully uses each of these elements heavily. Some reviewers argue that one or more of these elements are used gratuitously; I respectfully disagree. The intimate violence is the reason for the film in the first place, so any amount of it is necessary. The nudity, sex, sexuality, drug use, and language are all part of the slacker sub-culture, so I think having much less of it would make the movie too hollow. This isn’t supposed to be pleasant; you aren’t intended to leave the movie feeling good, and each of these elements play into making the movie that much more (though I hate to use this word) authentic.
Every performance was superb. I have not liked some members of the cast based on their other movies, but in this one, everyone shines. Though it starts out focusing on Brad Renfro and Nick Stahl (Marty and Bobby), it quickly turns into an ensemble piece. I have no complaints or issues here.
The music fits the tone and topic very well. I really don’t like most of the music itself, but if violent and misogynistic hip hop isn’t the natural soundtrack for the film, I don’t want to be acquainted with music that is.
The emotions Bully induces are at the very least uncomfortable. It is difficult to feel sympathy for the ultimate victim. Still, everyone had a choice to reconstitute their band of misfits in such a way that excluded him. Bobby’s presence in the group is tangential anyway since he is college-bound and the rest of them are either serious underperformers or dropouts. Therefore, justifying a murder is all but impossible. Bobby’s behavior was borderline criminal and completely anti-social, but this avoidable person became the victim of true criminal behavior. How this happened is perhaps the most disturbing facet of this film.
Lisa manipulates Marty just as much as Bobby, but instead of using violence, she uses sex and the notion (true or feigned) of love. She carries this manipulation to include 5 others in the plot. Lisa keeps saying the same thing that I paraphrase minus the profanity: I don’t care; I just want him dead tonight. The film makes obvious the idea that the 3 males other than Marty don’t actually believe this is going to happen. They are going along for different reasons. One pretends to be quasi-mafia and becomes the leader of this crew because he talks the talk, despite later not being able to walk much of the walk. One just wants to fit in with what he sees as the ‘cool’ kids. And the most frightening of all is the one who goes along because he is constantly high and seems to have nothing better to do. Get even this group of late-teen males and their testosterone and their tongues flapping and someone is going to at least get threatened; throw a match on it in the form of an actual victim wanting revenge and someone is going to get hurt.
I am not a parent and never will be, so I cannot see this from a parent’s eyes, only from a broader societal perspective. That said, I can see why this film would be so much more disturbing for parents. Still, what I have to say about that is if you are frightened, then it is more unlikely that you will have a child that is going to be involved in something like the events covered here.
Bully is no morality tale. No solution is offered, so it leaves that to the audience to discover if they want to try. But the film does point toward a method of prevention if not solution: parents. When parents appear (with one exception covered in a moment), they are ineffectual or disconnected from the reality around them. The exception is Bobby’s parents, but here the whiff of abuse and control from the father is palpable even if only implied. Neither the bully nor the would-be vigilantes have a relationship with their parents that could be considered healthy. Not all truly dysfunctional families turn out criminals and not all relatively healthy families turn out angels; however, the pattern is generally true that the more involved a parent is in the lives of their children, the less likely it is they will run into serious problems.
Bully pulls no punches. It offers no overt explanation for any justification of the behavior, only implies a couple. So the movie points to the responsibility of the act squarely on the shoulders of those who bore it. But it also provides a passing blame to the parents. Society itself maintains no specific responsibility here and that is one reason why it is as powerful and as frightening as it is. Because if society isn’t at least partly to blame, there isn’t anything society can do to mitigate it.
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