The Justice of Bunny King is a rollercoaster of spiralling events, with a glowing heart at its centre and intelligent commentaries galore.
A surprising amount takes place in The Justice of Bunny King; the film is like one big chain reaction, with the titular Bunny King – played by a spectacularly emotive Essie Davis (The Babadook, Babyteeth) at the epicentre of all that happens. And it just so happens this particular chain reaction is hugely memorable and one that is soaked in humanity – both the good and the bad – and a whole lot of emotion. The Justice of Bunny King might on occasion veer off track into farfetched and unbelievable plot points, but it does, for the most part, remain beautifully grounded and authentic. In the same year that Rūrangi got its worldwide release, New Zealand has sent a reminder that hard-hitting, complex dramas are very much its forte.
Bunny King is a woman who lives with her sister and their family but – for reasons that become clear in stages throughout the film – does not have custody of her own two children. Spending her days cleaning windows on cars with a squeegee in order to piece together enough money to find her own place, Bunny’s mission is solely focussed on getting her kids back. The complete adoration on her part for both children is clear, an adoration reciprocated by her youngest but less so by her eldest. As events transpire and actions have meaningful consequences, The Justice of Bunny King – and Bunny herself – really lifts off, morphing into an anxiety-inducing ride not too out of keeping with Uncut Gems (2019) or Punch-Drunk Love (2002). Yet where the Safdie Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson lean into the surreal tension of their situations, Gaysorn Thavat (in her directorial debut) grounds it with emotion, aided in no small part by an excellent screenplay by Sophie Henderson (Baby Done). That also, rather impressively, keeps proceedings more than comprehensible, dealing with scenes and events that in other hands might come off as muddled or ill-fitting.
Davis has given us memorable roles in The Babadook (2014) and Babyteeth (2019) but she blows both of those out of water with her performance here. The Justice of Bunny King gives Davis complete freedom to showcase her talents. The journey with Bunny would not be the same without Davis, who paints a vivid picture of a woman in a torrid, dead-end situation, increasingly desperate and grasping for a way out but, perhaps inevitably, persistently failing. The Justice of Bunny King isn’t just a well-formed drama; it is a cutting commentary on women in society rendered powerless by a cruel system. If justice might be lacking for Bunny, hopefully the same won’t be said for Davis come awards season. There are many moments where she grips the audience with her bubbling emotion – sometimes releasing it, sometimes not – but a scene near the end of the film will live the longest in your memory. It is a scene of such power and raw emotion that you’ll find yourself mimicking Bunny on screen and crying with all your helpless might. Supporting characters like Thomasin McKenzie’s (Leave No Trace, Jojo Rabbit) Tonyah get less to work with, inevitably, but still exist as real, tangible people, and McKenzie has emotional beats that absolutely do not seem out of place alongside Davis’.
There is so much to love about The Justice of Bunny King, which does make the directorial and screenwriting weaknesses stand out even more glaringly. None of these poorer choices are awful, but they do hold The Justice of Bunny King back from true greatness. The final act feels slightly out of place when seen alongside the preceding scenes of realism and it will more than likely make you question how much of this could actually happen. Thankfully, it never completely blows up into the fully outrageous, but it still missteps over that tricky line between realism and melodrama. The ending that follows is even more of a misstep, a cloying sign off that is unnecessary and there purely to symbolise, when valuing the well-built humanity of the film and allowing that to do the talking would have been the better decision.
And yet, even in the face of these few flaws, The Justice of Bunny King remains an engaging, stirring drama. And even when the events unfolding on screen might make you screw your face up in disbelief, you’ll still be fully immersed, fully connected with these people you’re watching. Thavat clearly has a keen directorial eye for giving characters space to fully form on screen whilst simultaneously creating a naturalistic world around them. Dramas like The Justice of Bunny King should be treasured. It is evidence that when realism is done right, the reactions from those watching are that much more real too.
The Justice of Bunny King had its UK Premiere at the 2021 Edinburgh Film Festival on 20th August, 2021, and will be released in US theaters on September 23, 2022.