In filmmaker Larry Clark's long, adventurous career (and that's the tame way of putting it), Bully represents the high point. The long awaited follow up to Clark's polarizing as hell Kids, Bully is something the likes I had never seen before and will never see again. It's a pummeling, uncomfortable experience, and you'll never stop being fascinated with it throughout Bully's 115 minute run time. You'll never look at the teenage lifestyle the same way again.
Marty (Brad Renfro) and Bobby (Nick Stahl) have been best friends as long as Marty can remember, which is pretty much the only positive you can say about their relationship. The psychotic Bobby mentally and physically abuses Marty every chance he gets, and wastes no time doing the same thing to Marty's new girlfriend Lisa (Rachel Miner) and her best friend Ali (Bijou Phillips). Fed up with his treatment of everyone, Marty, Lisa and Ali conspire to kill Bobby. Before you know it, Ali's stoner boyfriend Donny (Michael Pitt), Ali's friend/lover Heather (Kelli Garner), Lisa's cousin Derek (Daniel Franzese) and a supposed hit man (Leo Fitzpatrick) have gotten involved, and it quickly becomes clear that these kids are way in over their heads. I'm fairly certain Dawson and Downey from A Few Good Men were more aware of the consequences of their actions then these jokers.
Perhaps the most frightening thing about Bully is that it's based on a true story. In 1993, 20 year old Bobby Kent would be murdered by a group of seven friends, in revenge for his constant abuse towards many of them. All seven kids would be found guilty and sent to prison, though a few of them have been released in the years since. While there are some liberties taken (Marty is made more sympathetic than he actually was), Clark and American History X writer David McKenna (working under the pseudonym Zachary Long) tell the story as it happened, which is the biggest reason the film remains so engrossing. Not knowing the full story going in, I couldn't believe that what I saw from Bully was mostly all real. How could people this young act this way? How could all seven of the killers treat murder like it was a joke you hear in an Adam Sandler movie? Clark and McKenna wisely understood that Bully's biggest draw wouldn't just be the story, but the viewers trying to understand how such a horrible story could actually happen. It may not lead to the most comfortable of viewings, but it certainly means the film is never boring.
Technically speaking, Bully is pretty straightforward. Clark doesn't try anything too fancy here (save for a long, spinning take when the conspirators meet for the first time), and he didn't have to, having enough confidence that the story and the intrigue could carry the film. I was fascinated by how Clark viewed the relationship between teenagers in parents in this film, something that loomed heavily over Kids as well. To put it bluntly, the involvement of the parents in this film is either minimal or nonexistent. They never seem to have a clue what's going on, they never seem to care about what's going on (save for Lisa's mother, played by Elizabeth Dimon), or they don't seem to exist at all. The most egregious example is Bobby's father (Ed Armatrudo), who has no trouble criticizing Mary for his slacker/surfer ways, but can't take the time to see that his son is a potential serial killer in the making. Bully isn't just a critique of teenagers left to their own devices, but the parents who allow those situations to happen. No one gets off scot-free in Clark or McKenna's eyes and no one is a victim. Everyone in Bully is to blame.
From the moment Brad Renfro appears onscreen as Marty, you will not be able to take your eyes off him. This is a breathtaking performance, the kind that should've launched Renfro to larger heights if his off camera problems hadn't unfortunately affected him. He does a splendid job of making Marty sympathetic, but not too sympathetic; sure, Marty has been the victim his whole life, but he too is capable of moments of abuse towards the ones he loves, and he ultimately reveals himself to be nothing more than a coward. Renfro captures it all from start to finish, with a look in his eyes that no boy his age should ever have. I'll never forget this performance. It's a shining example of what could've been for such a talented young man, and another reason why it was so tragic when Renfro died in 2008 at only 26 years old.
Almost right there with Renfro are Leo Fitzpatrick, Nick Stahl and Michael Pitt. Working with Clark again after playing the lead role in Kids, Fitzpatrick's hit man character the most mature and the only one who seems to grasp how dire the situation is. His monologue towards the end of the film, where he chastises the group for being in way too deep and being unable to come up with an alibi, is one of the most electric moments of the film. Stahl's Bobby is an interesting villain, the ultimate asshole who cannot accept who he is (Clark makes it pretty clear that Bobby is deep in the closet) and has probably been mentally abused himself by his dad (something Clark strongly hints at). I thought Stahl did a good job of making Bobby somewhat sympathetic, which is something considering his character spends most of the film beating or raping someone. As for Pitt, his Donny gives the film most of its laughs and strangely commands the audience's attention throughout. I've always been puzzled by why Pitt never became more famous; his charisma, presence and unique look should've at least scored him a role as villain in a major film. Bully is another example of what he can bring to the table.
The rest of the cast is excellent as well; in fact, I dare say there isn't a bad performance in the lot. Rachel Miner's Lisa, almost as much the protagonist of this story as Marty is, is captivating, a shy girl who is much more cunning and vicious than what she appears to be. Bijou Phillips perfectly essays the exotic, sexy and dumb Ali. Mean Girls actor Daniel Franzese is really raw as the gentle giant Derek, who more than anyone proves to be in over his head the further down the road they go. And while she doesn't have that much to do compared to the rest, Kelli Garner does good work as Heather, particularly when it comes time for these seven kids to go all the way with their plan.
Make no mistake about it; Bully isn't for the faint of heart, and it's not an easy film to watch. Though the violence of the film isn't over the top (besides the murder scene), the film is by no means a comfortable experience, and as the actions of the main characters escalates, the more horrified you're likely to get. It's for those exact reasons however that Bully is a tremendous, impeccably acted, written and directed, while also serving as a great cautionary tale about bullying, absentee parents and youth gone wrong. If nothing else, see it for Renfro's powerful performance and the best work Clark has ever done behind the camera. Kids may be more notable, but it won't stick with you quite like Bully and Renfro's unforgettable gaze will.