Is it possible to defend the aesthetic worth of a film that is designed to test the audience’s boundaries? This is the kind of question that cult movie buffs can spend decades pondering. From Un Chien Andalou to John Waters to latter-day Lars Von Trier films, it’s something that anyone drawn to films outside the norms of mainstream entertainment has to confront multiple times. It’s also a question that is complicated by films that overtly use shock tactics as a calculated ploy towards the horror market: the Saw films, the Hostel films, Rob Zombie’s work, etc.
The truth is there is no one answer to this question. The moral and aesthetic boundaries of each viewer are different plus the motivations for each filmmaker to pursue such material are different, ensuring there is no way to find any kind of consensus on an answer. However, this question remains useful to those adventurous viewers because it forces them to confront their attitudes towards transgressive art when confronted with a film that aggressively aims to make its viewers uncomfortable.
The Bunny Game is exactly the sort of squirm-inducing fare that will cause thoughtful film fans to do some soul-searching about aesthetic matters. It is essentially a collaboration between three people: actress Rodleen Getsic (who also co-wrote the story), actor Jeff Renfro and filmmaker Adam Rehmeier, who does virtually everything else – directing, photography, editing, even the musical score. It’s designed to shock viewers and, regardless of what you might think of its tactics, it’s assembled with a greater degree of craft and artistry than many of its contemporaries in the shock marketplace.
The first thing you’ll notice about The Bunny Game is that it strips away the niceties of narrative filmmaking to their barest essentials. There is minimal dialogue or plot as it sets up the dreary, dangerous life of its main character (Getsic), who is called Bunny in the credits but never identified by name. She’s a prostitute who works the sleazier streets of the city, living a treadmill existence that alternates between demeaning, brutal sex with predatory johns and doing heavy amounts of drugs to wipe out the physical/psychological pain her work brings. There is no inner monologue or interactions with other characters to give her a backstory: the audience is simply made to feel her pain and weariness.
However, Bunny’s daily grind is a walk in the park compared to what happens when she crosses paths with a trucker (Renfro) who is only identified in the credits as Hog. He talks her into the cab of his truck, chloroforms her and drives her off into the desert outside the city. Thus begins a 5-day stint of torment and degradation as Hog uses a variety of cruel tactics to break Bunny down to a shell of a human being. He shaves her head, chains her up and eventually introduces the bizarre game of the title. There are also flashbacks to another torture session with a different woman (Drettie Page) that reveals Hog has done this before. As the film nears its end, the purpose behind Hog’s terrors comes into view… but like the film’s beleaguered heroine, you might find yourself wondering if you’ll make it to the finish line.
The end result is not entertaining… but it is not designed for entertainment. The Bunny Game exists to create fear, dread and shock in its audience and it succeeds at that agenda easily. The root of that power lies in the performances. Getsic suffers from start to finish, allowing herself to be emotionally raw and physically troubled in ways that few actors would allow. Renfro provides the opposing force, portraying an unredeemable force of evil with eerie, often gleeful conviction. The two are so convincing in their respective roles that you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a real torture session, a feeling that intensifies when it is revealed that a pair of scenes involving branding in the film were actually done for real.
However, what keeps The Bunny Game from being the emotional equivalent of a snuff movie – and what also separates it from Saw/Hostel “shock for commercial gain” crowd – is the filmmaking of Adam Rehmeier. He’s not afraid to shove something ugly in the audience’s face (the film’s opening scene starts where The Brown Bunny leaves off) but he picks and chooses those intense shock moments carefully to keep the audience from going numb and is careful to pace them with some quieter moments. Viewers might be surprised to realize that though the film features a lot of matter-of-fact nudity, it has virtually no gore. The director and his cast are fearless enough to achieve a powerful psychological impact without it.
Rehmeier’s technique also elevates the proceedings. His stark, black and white photography has a grungy elegance in the city scenes and achieves a sort of sun-baked minimalism once they reach the desert. It’s also worth noting that his handheld camerawork is blessedly subtle, with little of the self-conscious jitteriness that has become a cliché for this style. Though his editing is fast, it is never indiscriminately so: he’s very attentive to rhythm and uses sound editing to create a stylized audio backdrop that adds coherence to the moments of speed montage. Even if the content of the film leaves you cold, Rehmeier’s grasp of cinematic language is damned impressive.
In short, each viewer will have to make their own decision about viewing The Bunny Game. It’s brutal and uncompromising in a way that will alienate anyone who expects entertainment from this medium. However, the filmmaker and cast take their roles of artistic provocation much more seriously than you might expect and bring both artistry and total dedication to their work. If you can handle its confrontational style, The Bunny Game is an aesthetic litmus test that is worth taking for the brave cinephile.