Our predominant political and cultural narratives tell us that the so-called “heartland” of America is middle-America, that ubiquitous zone sandwiched somewhere between the coasts. Supposedly, that’s where our “family values” are nurtured, where our collective “morality” is rigidly defined, and where many of our most significant political and cultural dilemmas are played out on the page and screen. American Bully (2009) is yet another 9/11 rumination set in an undefined suburban middle-American neighborhood: white fences, green grass, and the rest of the generic grab-bag of melodramatic mise-en-scène.
American Bully begins with a horrified reporter watching an Internet video of a torture, and ends with this same reporter pronouncing the actions of the torturers on a national news network, as well as pondering the psychological effects of media on the impressionable minds of young people all over the country. In between these bookends we learn the circumstances behind this unfortunate occurrence, and we meet the perpetrators in their cushy context: a coterie of thoroughly unlikeable white guys, including Brandon, leader of the squad, and Mike, a lightweight peer pressure pushover, and the rest of the faceless gang. We get to know these kids as they run through the greatest hits collection of delinquent behavior, including: playing video games, skipping school, smoking dope, drinking, and hassling “Arab” convenience store clerks to sell them booze. After spending their whole day getting pissed and rambling racist nonsense about all kinds of ethnic difference and what should be done about it post-9/11, they run across Eric, a classmate they take for an “Arab” (actually Indian), and they run him down and nab him and propose to torture him for what “his people” did on that infamous day.
The links this narrative makes between hate crimes and alcohol are clearly the type of jingoistic pop-psychology that flattens its characters into comic book villains rather than “real” people. True, Brandon does state that he has a brother stationed in Iraq, but while this might explain why he feels automatic hostility to those who are different from himself and his cohorts, it does not explain why he so calmly goes to the grisly ends he goes to in order to purge his fear. Some genuinely harrowing scenes near the end of the film are hampered somewhat by his lack of natural aversion or even slight hesitation in regards to torturing and killing another person, let alone his arch-villain remorselessness, which stands at odds with an otherwise realistically motivated representation of suburbia and its inhabitants.
Mike is an odd character too, in that he has an incredibly weak constitution, both bodily and socially. From the outset he seems like a smart enough lad; for instance, he is the only one of his peers who expresses any interest in going to college. But soon enough the perils of peer pressure get to him, and he succumbs to joining in on a light beer-fueled barrage against Mexicans and “Arabs.” “Kill ‘em all,” he so freely proclaims to the high-five hegemony of his dumb friends. Acting drunk is notoriously difficult, and these actors, who I take to be amateurs, are certainly ill-equipped to play such roles.
While one might say that the racism of these guys, bred and succored by the insulation of suburban life, is sufficiently attacked in this film, the same cannot be said for their masculinity. Although it may seem inappropriate to take a film to task for something it does not aim to do, the truth is that racism and masculinity often go hand-in-hand, so that a critique of one is incomplete without a critique of the other. American Bully says nothing about a culture which encourages such aggressive behavior in boys, though it nearly does so entirely by accident, making its flaws all the more obvious. When the guys are joined by Charlotte and Michele – the only two girls in the film, save for the aforementioned reporter – one of them, Michele, takes an immediate liking to Brandon. Why? She says he’s “cute.” But Michele doesn’t realize that the real reason is generic; she exists for purely expository purposes, she is totally imaginary. She needs to infiltrate the fraternity so that the audience can learn more about these fellas and what drives them. This might have worked had the narrative taken the time to make her role integral to the main plot; instead, she only sticks around long enough to be pretty and hang around in Brandon’s arms, and her presence is sorely lacking once the violence picks up near the end of the film.
The cinematography of American Bully is technically competent and functional, if not terribly interesting. Analytical editing clearly breaks down the space and time of each scene, though it’s often unnecessarily languorous, particularly in the establishing shots. Long takes are the only really noticeable stylistic flourish, and they work in tandem with several scenes featuring what seems like a more natural and improvisational style of acting; not coincidentally, these scenes mark the few times when the actors seem even remotely comfortable in their roles. These long takes, though, are often at odds with the more traditional scenes that dominate the rest of the film, and the film suffers as it bounces back and forth between Gus Van Sant-lite stylistics and the more ordinary indie twaddle. Some handheld camerawork slips in near the end of the film, matching the diegetic camerawork of Mike as he films Brandon torturing Eric for the web. This is an especially nice touch, suggesting a development in cinematography that matches the development of the characters within the narrative from smooth unselfconsciousness to erratic awareness. Unsurprisingly, then, the most intriguing shot in the whole film continues this trend by literally uniting the nondiegetic camerawork with the diegesis itself; Mike drops the camera and we see through its viewfinder, revealing the climax artistically (you might even say tastefully) in a very long take that denies absolute clarity.
Mise-en-scène is generally blank and underdeveloped. An abandoned house serves as the primary location for the action, and like the others, it is undecorated and does not nuance the story in any appreciable fashion, except for a defaced flag hanging on the wall which rarely figures into the compositions at all. Similarly, lighting is only functional and realistically motivated, though it looks just fine, especially the outdoor shots.
Sound is only notable here in two instances: one, for its use as a foreshadowing device at the beginning of the film; and two, for its balancing problems, as the volume jumps erratically and (unnecessarily) obscures some dialogue. A score kicks in on occasion to help cover up the editing, which only reveals itself in a few bland montage sequences and a whole heap of fades to condense time.
Although intermittently engaging, American Bully is nevertheless a case study in stylistic schizophrenia and disorganization. A few long takes and an above-average ending cannot save this from being your usual uneventful small release. Recommendation to avoid.