Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts (based on his play)
Stars: Ashley Judd (Agnes White), Michael Shannon (Peter Evans), Lynn Collins (R.C.), Brian F. O'Byrne (Dr. Sweet), Harry Connick Jr. (Jerry Goss)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2007
Country: U.S.
Can't you see it?Based on the celebrated off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts, William Friedkin's Bug is a claustrophobic thriller that slowly and methodically peels away layers of normality until we are trapped in a contagious delusion made frightening literal. The low-rent motel room in which most of the action takes place transforms over the course of the film's increasingly histrionic 102 minutes from a dusty, ramshackle bit of off-the-beaten-path Americana into a nightmarish freakshow of fly paper, tin foil, and plastic wrap.

But, then again, Americana is what Bug is all about--or at least the nightmare inverse of everything the U.S. of A is conventionally understood to stand for. The dark underbelly of the American dream of freedom and democracy is our obsession with conspiracy theories and fear of our own government's corruptible power, and Bug feeds off this ravenously, projecting all our collective insecurities into the logical extreme of delusional schizophrenia run amok in the heartland. The film's primary setting is an Oklahoma roadside motel, the remoteness of which Friedkin emphasizes beautifully with a series of helicopter shots that place it just off a highway surrounded by nothing. While it looks like it might have once been described as “quaint,” it now conjures only disparagements such as “trashy.” Awash in green and blue lighting that suggests a nightclub infested with gangrene, it is hardly a place of respite even before the madness proper begins.

The central character who resides at the motel is Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a fortysomething waitress (although Judd looks much younger) who is hiding from life in a haze of booze, dope, and cocaine. Still deeply wounded from a great loss years earlier, she is currently in fear of her recently paroled and abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick, Jr.). She thinks she finds both solace and protection in a shy, reticent man named Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), whom her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) brings over after meeting him at the honky-tonk where she and Agnes work. Peter appears to be the opposite of Agnes's violent husband: quiet, reserved, well-mannered. However, there is something not quite right about him from the get-go--he has an air about him that immediately suggests he's hiding something. It's the first of the film's many contrasts between exteriors and interiors, what we see and what we don't.

Nevertheless, Agnes falls for him, and over the next few days she finds herself being drawn into Peter's increasingly delusional worldview. It all begins with Peter claiming that he found a bug in their bed, one so small that at first Agnes can't even see it. But, no matter--the suggestion of its existence has been planted, and soon Peter begins to talk in increasingly feverish and violent tones about his experiences in the Gulf War, government medical experiments, the ascendancy of machines, mind control, and most of all the aphids he believes are crawling under his skin and feeding on his blood.

What is most horrific about these delusions (assuming they are, in fact, delusions) is that, like the bugs Peter is so intent on discovering, they are contagious. Although Agnes cannot at first see the bugs, soon she is just as convinced of their existence as Peter is; she is a convert, and even when her faith wanes as she watches Peter inflict excruciatingly violent self-mutilation to get rid of them, it is only temporary. His conspiracy theories and sick fantasies of infestation fill a void in her life, a need to believe in something other than her own worthlessness and fear, even if that means her own physical demise. The most disturbing thing about Bug is not the violence or the verbal histrionics or the decay of rationality, but rather the underlying sense that Agnes wants--no, needs--to believe Peter's stories.

Relying as it does on limited space and a handful of characters, Bug's real power emanates from its performances, all of which are exceptional. Ashley Judd, who has too long been trapped in the dual purgatory of romantic comedies and silly women-in-peril thrillers, sheds all vestiges of movie star glamour in playing Agnes, a woman who is clearly on the edge of her own physical and spiritual ruin. The real standout, though, is Michael Shannon, who has already played the role of Peter on stage. Having skirted the edges of Hollywood for the past 10 years, Shannon is probably best remembered for playing the real-life Marine in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a role whose underlying creepiness is a good primer for his work in Bug. Slightly odd-looking, yet strangely endearing, he gives a tour-de-force performance of radical character meltdown, going from shy to deranged in stages so carefully nuanced that it's hard to tell when exactly things start to go wrong. Of course, the overwhelming power of the performances opens the film up to the criticism that it is simply a showcase for dramatic pyrotechnics and little else. However, if that were true, the film and its carefully controlled ambiguities wouldn't stick to your gut in such a forceful way long after it ends.

Bug is not surprisingly being advertised as being “from the director of The Exorcist,” which says almost as much about the lingering power of that 1973 horror classic as it does about the disappointing nature of Friedkin's career over the past three decades. The comparison is not just a marketing ploy, though, as Bug allows Friedkin to play on his strengths as a director--namely, managing actors in close quarters. For all the talk about pea soup and head-spinning in The Exorcist, that film was in many ways a chamber piece, with its issues of faith, religion, and the true nature of evil playing out largely within the tight confines of a little girl's bedroom. By the end of Bug, Agnes's motel room is as unrecognizable as Reagan's bedroom was, transformed from a place of ordinary existence into a realm of extraordinary degradation in which two people finding love and acceptance culminates into a literal inferno.

Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3.5)

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