2007Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon
ug is decked out with blue fluorescent lights and set pieces constructed almost entirely of tin foil, thinly populated by actors forgotten long ago and made by a director who hasn’t been behind the camera of a legitimately good movie in at least two decades. Its studio had understandably little confidence in it—who opens against a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel?—and even the ads, despite touting it as the work of the director of The Exorcist, seem more eager to sell it as hack-and-slice teen boilerplate than to the target audience of attentive adults the film clearly requires.
This should sound familiar, if unsurprising, because just about the same thing happened last month to the brilliant 28 Weeks Later, which will go similarly overlooked because its studio apparently didn’t think anyone besides 15-year-olds who can find a way around the multiplex concierge would pay any attention to it. It’s true that R-rated horror is a pretty lonely gig these days, but then why market Bug, a fastidiously mature thriller about violent mental illness, and, say, Disturbia, a breezy teen thriller with a selling point of Shia LaBeouf’s cheekbones, to the same crowd of adolescents? It goes past dishonesty and into nonsensicality, and though neither the relative dismissal of 28 Weeks Later or Bug by mainstream audiences does anything to either film’s merit, it’s still enough to get this observer pretty riled up.
More than anything it’s a bummer, because these are two of the most unapologetically adult and uniquely thrilling movies this year. Bug, like 28 Weeks Later, has enough fits of exaggerated violence to ensure it would never have been a hit outside of genre fans (who seem largely to have shunned it), but it’s been a while since a thriller really got under our skin. Both movies do that quite literally, though beyond their commercial woes and desire to thrill with both mind and matter, there’s really not much more room for comparison. Whereas 28 Weeks Later funnels into a harsh cocktail of zombie action and unmistakably political intrigue, Bug has a simpler, more primal, and basically as honorable intention: It wants to drive us out of our heads.
That it certainly does. Stuffed for most of the movie in a tiny, bleak Oklahoma motel room, the film’s main subject, Agnes (a supreme Ashley Judd), snorts coke and smokes pot, numbing herself alternatively to avoid a present aimlessness and a past littered with violence and longtime despair. One night a friend brings over Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter whose peculiar, placid temperament is deceptively beguiling, and Agnes quickly takes to him.
To describe the plot further would be both difficult and, I suspect, pointless, since it is a descent into madness that doesn’t always makes sense but is too intense to let us take notice. The characters alternate between tenderness, offbeat intelligence and almost unbelievable plateaus of delusion. The film posits many possible answers for how they enable each other’s mania, each of them reasonably pointed, but they become immaterial as frenzied paranoia takes over the show.
Tracy Letts adapted his own play for the minimalist screenplay, and his action is typically stationary and talky, sustained more by its minor observations than its action. He stocks his characters with oblique backstories and irreparable psychological wounds, never really elaborated upon because it’s not really necessary—it’s not the source of the madness here but the process and aftermath that are ultimately of interest.
The movie gets loud and dangerously close to silly in the final sequence, a long and unremittingly frantic climax in which Judd and Shannon declare themselves insect royalty while waving their arms in the air, but its bizarre indulgences are effective with the aid of the director William Friedkin’s ingeniously complicit view of the characters. This man is capable of some truly awful cinema—he is responsible for The Hunted, Cruising, oh, and Jade—but he knows how to sell this material with staggering force. His camera is completely in tune with the characters; it blurs when they are in a haze, shakes when they get into their characteristic frenzy, its unadulterated focus suggesting that we too are heading into a vortex of bleary-eyed insanity. He gets his hands dirty, but it’s an undeniably effective device.
The mechanics of Bug, paranoia begetting paranoia begetting violence, are not unfamiliar, but the film is unlike its precursors because it never really leaves open the possibility the character’s delusions are rooted in reality. There is a telling scene in which a character not engulfed in the mania offers medical evidence that no one has been bitten by bugs. We don’t really believe her, despite the fact that the film gives us every reason we should. And that’s the film’s neatest trick: None of this is possible, but it methodically numbs rational thought to the point where the character’s actions are so horrifying because we briefly get swept up right along with them.
Note: Many prints of the film include a preview of Eli Roth’s Hotel: Part II, due in theaters Friday, in which an apparent survivor of the first film (I haven’t had the pleasure) gets, um, intensive treatment in a European hospital. Though fairness requires me to reserve judgment until having seen the final product, the clip suggests it probably isn’t worth the bother.
Bug is currently playing in wide release.