Any time a work of art is labeled the "worst" of anything, there's usually something interesting about it, an estranging quality that makes it special, even if it alienates the masses. Tagged the worst film ever to play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, Vincent Gallo's second directorial feature, The Brown Bunny, seemed doomed never to have a theatrical run, much less a critical resuscitation. But between Cannes in May and the Toronto Film Festival in September, Gallo trimmed a reportedly indulgent rough cut to its current form, which probably helped his tender road movie better skirt the line between the personal and the narcissistic. What remains is still a wounded duck, spoiled by a notorious final scene that breaks its narcotic spell, but the film deserves to be considered with fresh eyes—that is, if Gallo cares to rescue it from the gossip pages.
From the beginning, the clatter surrounding The Brown Bunny's première and release has done a disservice to the movie, which deals so quietly and intimately with heartache that the sound of a mouthful of popcorn reverberates around the theater as if viewers were chewing into megaphones. Adopting the grainy, washed-out texture of '70s road pictures like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, The Brown Bunny works best as a lonely travelogue, with long stretches of highway connecting America as seen through a bug-flecked windshield. En route to see his once and greatest love (Chloë Sevigny) in Los Angeles, motorcycle racer Gallo steals a few kisses along the way from random women, including a convenience-store clerk, a Vegas street walker, and, most poignantly, a sad-eyed lonely-heart (Cheryl Tiegs) at a rest stop. But none can shake his memories of Sevigny, who greets him at the end of the line with a friendly blow job.
For anyone ever driven to a navel-gazing stupor by a bad breakup, The Brown Bunny stirs up those old achy feelings like a rainstorm prods a gimpy joint, thanks to arid images and plaintive songs by crooners like Gordon Lightfoot. But once Gallo reaches his destination, the only solid element is his throbbing member. His on-screen gratification isn't in itself objectionable: Those tempted to write the film off as a vanity project have to acknowledge his intense vulnerability in the scene, though he might have given himself a few more takes. As in his debut feature, Buffalo '66, Gallo deflects some charges of egotism by playing an anti-heroic man-child, but the big scene revolves around a dramatic twist that punctures the otherwise delicately managed tone. Nevertheless, if the independent film world were littered with alleged disasters like The Brown Bunny, the scene would be far richer for it.