Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Lynn Collins, Harry Connick Jr., Brian F. O'Byrne
MPAA Rating: (for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use)
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 5/25/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
Tracy Letts' script for Bug (based on his play) hits upon a few of those strange fears we have: a persistent itch that won't go away, strange sores appearing out of nowhere, an overriding feeling of loneliness, and how our psyches are more fragile than we'd care to admit. It's a horror film that isn't scary in a shock-a-minute way or gruesome in a bucket-of-blood-and-guts way but one that is a deeply disturbing, claustrophobic look at psychological trauma. The film is also imbued with a sense of sadness, loss, and a dominant desire to suppress those feelings in any way possible—even if it means clinging to paranoid delusions as an escape from reality. It's a nihilistic film but one whose outlook of existence actually accomplishes to say something about us as human beings. The script is fine, challenging stuff, and it's directed by William Friedkin, who clearly understands the screenplay's inherent goals of revealing the delicate armor of the human mind. It's sort of a shame, then, that Friedkin's style sometimes gets in the way. The film is glossy and occasionally—especially in the still wrenching climax—devolves into camp, but at its core, Bug is still shocking, upsetting, on-the-fringe filmmaking.
After a quick view of a room covered in aluminum foil with body lying on the floor, there's a long helicopter shot across the plains to a long shot of the Rustic Motel. There's an odd sense of quiet disrupted suddenly by a phone ringing. Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is the sole occupant of the grimy motel room, and when she answers the phone, there is no answer at the other end. The room is hot—the air conditioner turns on when it pleases—and Agnes is trying to light a cigarette, counting money, and drinking wine. The phone rings again. She asks if it's Jerry, and if he's gotten out. Still no one there. After a third time, she leaves, goes to the grocery store, and heads to work at a local lesbian bar. Her co-worker R.C. (Lynn Collins) wants her to meet a guy. The three meet at Agnes' room, where the women do cocaine while the guy does nothing. He's Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), who Agnes says is quiet like an ax murderer. In spite of her concerns, she lets Peter stay the night on the couch, and the next morning, she awakes to find Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), her ex-husband who has gotten out of prison, in the room.
The scene between Agnes and Jerry mirrors the tonal progression of the film, starting with a quiet sense of unease and slowly building toward its inevitable point. The problems for Agnes begin soon after she and Peter have sex (Friedkin strangely intercuts their making love with stock footage of insects, apparently for those people in the audience who wonder when the bugs implied by the title are supposed to show up). She has just brought up the subject of her missing son to Jerry, and suddenly, her character has revealed herself. She's intensely lonely and struggling with guilt; Peter is a man who finds her attractive, makes her feel special (he tells her he hasn't been with a woman in a long time), and speaks with words like "matriarchal." The problem is he's also a paranoid delusional, fearing the sounds of helicopters looking for him and the incredibly tiny "aphids" that are crawling around the bed, biting him. He was in the Army, he tells Agnes, and was part of a test group of an Army experiment; the bugs are, in his mind, a byproduct of that test to keep him in line. In a truly unnerving scene, he pulls out one of his teeth, where he thinks the bugs' nest is located.
All of this would be enough for almost anyone to cut their losses, but even after Peter offers to leave her, Agnes begs him to stay. "I'd rather talk to you about bugs than be with nobody," she confides to him, and that willingness to grasp on to anyone willing to listen—perhaps someone who seems worse off than you—instead of facing another night looking for her lost son in her dreams or being scared of the man who tried to kill her is where the film's horror lies. Agnes does not merely give Peter a place to hide, but she also becomes a participant in his paranoia. Friedkin keeps his camera close (sometimes, ironically, distancing us from the performances with forced zooms to the actors' faces) and, with enormous help from Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon's vulnerable performances, somehow makes this exaggerated version of psychological meltdown haunting and nearly impossible to turn away from. The climax of the film, set in that foiled room from the opening shot, brings on a new character named Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne), who at once confirms some of Peter's delusions and adds a question of plausibility to others, and features a breathless moment of paranoid ranting from Judd that shows how far-gone she has become.
Some of the dialogue fails (I cannot imagine any actress pulling off the line, "I am the super-mother bug," without camp value, but Judd makes a pretty decent attempt) and Friedkin tries too hard to force ambiguity in aspects of the story where there is none (i.e., that stock footage, as though it may have actually happened), but Bug present a legitimate, lasting feeling of distress. It's somewhat flawed, but try to get it out of your head.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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