Larry Clark is a complicated artist.
From his early days as one of the preeminent photographers of his generation, releasing books like Tulsa and Teenage Lust, up through his neo-realist inspired features including “Kids” and “Ken Park,” Clark has remained fixated on the lives of troubled youth. His protagonists are dope fiends, A.I.D.S. victims, murderers and skate punks — lanky, beautiful adolescents who seem to be almost reaching for oblivion. His work has been called exploitative, pornographic and even pedophilic, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In “Bully,” perhaps his most complete film, Clark examines the lives of a group of teens who could not be more doomed if they were spending an alcohol-drenched weekend at Camp Crystal Lake. Based upon true events, the film tells the story of a loosely connected social scene of typically Clark-ian drug addicts, abuse survivors and victims who band together to plot the murder of the especially vile Bobby Kent (Nick Stahl), who has spent most of his short life psychologically, physically and sexually torturing all those who surround him. It is his best friend (played by Brad Renfro) who finally suggests that maybe they would all be better off if Kent just disappeared.
The film is awash in graphic depictions of sex and horrific acts of violence. But to dismiss these often unlikable character sketches as pointless and nihilistic is to completely misread things. These are lost teens who cope with behemoth personal demons through further self destruction. They are pathetic. They are losers. They are disgusting. But most of all, they are wounded pieces of humanity.
While he is certainly a keen-eyed provocateur, Clark is neither a pedophile nor a master of cheap exploitation. Rather, he is perhaps the most moral filmmaker working today. His films do not simply regurgitate the rhetoric of sub-“Reefer Madness” alarmism but instead expose the deep underbelly of the actual subculture. Only Todd Solondz and French enfant terrible Catherine Breillat belong in the same sentence. He holds up a mirror for society and examines, often in incredibly scatological detail, the long-term ramifications of abuse, neglect and what happened when the lost generation became parents.
These characters, most often played by shoe-gazing amateurs, are not hyped-up CW pretty boys. They are real street kids, and the incredible verisimilitude of the features is only made more intense by the shocking number of young stars who have met untimely ends after appearing in these films. One of the well-known is Renfro, whose exclusion from the Academy Awards memorial montage earlier this year caused a minor uproar in some circles.
There is something hypnotic about Clark’s films. His training and years of experience as a photographer grant him an almost preternatural skill in framing images. His shots are nothing short of perfect, breathtaking. Even when the subject of the imagery is grisly it is impossible to look away because it is too compelling.
Most of the film is made up of listless afternoons full of casual sex, hard drug use and solipsistic monologues; these high schoolers exhibit endless, aimless, hedonism and sort of punk-rock dedication to never thinking things all the way through.
Things take a turn for the darkly humorous as the murder plot comes together. The gang finds a so-called “mafia hitman” (Leo Fitzpatrick, again proving that he is one of the great underused talents of recent years) who talks a big game through his lisp. His sole credential is his “CMF” tattoo. No one seems fazed that he still lives with his mother. These aren’t rebels without a cause, they’re idiots without a clue.
But the moments of carcinogenic levity only serve to ratchet up the tension when things turn bloody. The actual murder is horrific, both in its brutality and its poor conception. And things only become more harrowing as the gang desperately and hopelessly tries to cover its tracks.
It is not an easy film, but “Bully” demands consideration. The first time I saw it, I watched it three times in a row. It hits hard and doesn’t offer any easy outs, and as the final images reduce the lives of these not-quite adults to little more than bold-type letters announcing the number of years they will spend in prison, it becomes something else entirely.
“Bully” is not a cautionary tale because this isn’t what could happen; it’s what already has. If it is ugly it is only because we, as a society, have allowed it. If it is grotesque it is only because it reflects parts of ourselves that we would prefer to deny. And occasionally, it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
You just might need to take a long, cold shower afterward.