Comedian Wanda Sykes does a bit about strip clubs, describing the different levels of (un)subtlety the dancers have. She wraps it up by describing one stripper at an especially seedy club who comes out already stark naked, stands in front of the customers, opens her legs, and just stands there saying "well, here it is…look at it! Look at it!"
That's kind of how The Bunny Game made me feel.
I'm not one to shy away from transgressive or upsetting films, as I think past posts will attest. Still, when I first read about The Bunny Game, I was given pause. It's the story of a prostitute who is abducted by a truck driver and tortured for five days. There's almost no dialogue, it's shot in stark black and white, and consists almost entirely of the victimization of the prostitute (referred to only as "The Bunny") at the hands of her johns and the truck driver. There's some interstitial footage of The Bunny at some other unspecified time and of the truck driver (referred to as "The Hog") torturing and eventually killing another victim. That's it. No story of which to speak, just scenes of violence and degradation punctuated by abrasive noises and equally abrasive music.
Okay, so, minimalist and sensationalistic. Perfect fodder for the market depicted in S&Man, the jaded violence fan looking for the next August Underground. But, trangressive? Disturbing? Really? Well, see, here's the thing: All of the violence inflicted on The Bunny by The Hog is unsimulated. The Bunny really is getting the shit kicked out of her, getting asphyxiated, getting dragged naked through the desert, getting branded. None of that is fake, and that's where people are up in arms about this movie. If you're watching this, you're watching someone being tortured, full stop.
So this required some thought on my part. According to an interview I've read with the director, this was a pretty much improvised piece in which the actress playing The Bunny was an active collaborator. They came up with the idea, and she went into it eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what could happen, even embracing the potential risk of making herself completely vulnerable to a stranger (and non-actor, at that) about whom she knows nothing in terms of his capacity for violence.
And there's precedent for this in other films to one degree or another - Christian Bale lost unhealthy amounts of weight for his role in The Machinist, Lars von Trier terrorized Björk throughout filming of Dancer in the Dark, and it shows in the harrowing final act. The shooting conditions for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were so physically uncomfortable and inhospitable that Marilyn Burns was pretty much bleeding and screaming for real. Hell, even Peter Jackson used a take in which Viggo Mortensen broke his foot for The Two Towers. Never mind the isolation Heath Ledger endured to turn in his brilliant performance in The Dark Knight. This point gets lost, I think, in the discussion around this movie. People hurt themselves in film and for film all the time. It is primarily a matter of context and degree that separates movie trivia from moral panic, then.
So given the subject matter (bleak), and the style (unsparing), what is the end result? For what was blood shed and flesh scarred? From where I'm sitting, not a whole lot.
We get glimpses of The Bunny's life outside of this as blasts of jumbled imagery, but it all moves by too fast to give us anything to hold as true or real about her. What she is here and now is basically meat - a thing to be used and discarded. At one point, she squats, braced up against a fence, and urinates on the sidewalk. She rearranges her clothes and moves on. It is like we are being dared to see her with anything other than contempt.
The second half of the movie is primarily concerned with her captivity and torture. The Hog is an older man, a truck driver. The Bunny shares some drugs with him, offers him a blow job. He responds by chloroforming her. He puts her in the trailer of his semi, chains her to the wall, and drives his truck out into the desert, where nobody can hear them. What follows is scene after scene of The Hog terrorizing either The Bunny or an earlier victim (listed in the credits as, surprise, "Martyr"). He cuts their clothes away, asphyxiates them, brands them. Plays with their bodies, forces himself on them while they lie bound and gagged. Sometimes we see this directly, sometimes we see it recorded and played back for The Bunny. Point of view is less important than just seeing it. It's just there, people getting hurt by this man. It's often accompanied by loud, harsh music and primitive editing tricks, looping scenes over and over again. Pretty much all this accomplishes is taking us out of whatever drama builds up. With one hand it refuses us the comfort of it just being a movie, and with the other it pushes its artificiality in your face.
And that's pretty much it. There's no real story here. It's just a lot of torture, and then it ends. There's some ham-handed Christ imagery toward the end, but to no apparent effect. She gets hurt one way, then another. There's no rhythm to it, no rise and fall, no quiet to make the noise worse, just blasts of imagery and noise and screaming. There's no reason to care about The Bunny outside of her basic humanity, which the movie spends its first half trying to undermine as much as possible. As near as I can tell, it signifies nothing outside of itself. I know the director and actress intended it as a way for her to work out some issues she had around something traumatic in her past, and maybe that's the case, but whatever came from that isn't really shared with the audience. We don't get included in that, and so all we have are the images on the screen, and they don't say much outside of pain, helplessness, and fear. I'm not big on authorial intent, and I firmly believe that a film's vocabulary communicates as much as the content of the film, but at the end of this, I was left feeling nothing. Not numb, not emptied out, just indifferent. All I could do was ask why - not the "why" of "how can this exist under the gaze of a just and loving god?", but the "why" of "what was the point of doing this?"
Any film - no matter how transgressive - should leave us with something at the end of it. It should communicate something and leave us feeling something at the end of it. The Bunny Game did neither for me. Whatever the filmmakers' intent, what I saw on the screen was empty and awful, and left me no different for the experience.
It did not haunt me. It did not move me, except maybe to feel slightly sad that for all of the blood and tears shed for it, this was all that came of it. A filmic voice saying "here it is…look at it", as if that is reason enough.