Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
For its brief theater run just four months ago, William Friedkin's Bug was misleadingly advertised as a horror film. Although based on frightening and repellent ideas, Tracy Letts' play is more of a psychological study in acute paranoia. The well-developed film version is basically an extended one-act play of very high quality, a more intense version of something we might have seen on an hour-long Alfred Hitchcock Presents or The Twilight Zone. Definitely not a feel-good experience, Bug makes one's skin crawl.
Dissolute, sexually-undecided bargirl Agnes White (Ashley Judd) has nothing but problems, the biggest of which is her jailbird ex-husband Jerry Gross (Harry Connick Jr.), who can't seem to understand that she's no longer his personal property. Agnes's sense of worthlessness may be sourced in the disappearance of her 8 year-old son, who has yet to be found. Agnes's heavy-drinking girlfriend and sometime lover R.C. (Lynn Collins) parks a lonely drifter with Agnes for a night. Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) is at first shy and unimposing until Agnes begs to know why the Army is looking for him. Peter waits until Agnes is emotionally committed before explaining that he was used by military doctors in a horrible experiment with living parasites ...
An impressive drama and a sustained acting tour-de-force for its entire cast, Bug is one of those movies that falls into a troublesome niche. Viewed cold, with no foreknowledge of its subject matter, it works like a polished stage play. We first expect a film about troubled lowlifes on the prairie, with Ashley Judd and Lynn Collins engaged in a lesbian affair. Then we worry that Ashley's Agnes White will become the victim of her menacing ex-husband Jerry, played with great skill by Harry Connick Jr.. Plagued by someone playing cruel phone games and far too vulnerable in her crummy motel room, Agnes is also a prime candidate for slasher-film martyrdom.
Michael Shannon's ambiguous Peter Evans enters the picture as a combination of reassuring and worrisome elements. He's not a threatening goon like Jerry, but he's certainly weird. It's not long before Peter brings a different kind of menace to Agnes's life, a psychological 'infestation' more powerful than anything Jerry can muster.
The title Bug suggests insect monsters, like William Castle's thirty year-old creature feature with the same title. Tracy Letts shows a different kind of terror at work, a festering paranoia easily transferred to from person to person. Agnes helps Peter hide from the army doctors he claims are on his trail, while dealing with the frightening effects of the experiments done to him against his will. By limiting our knowledge to what Agnes knows, Bug pulls us into its hysterical chain of surprises.
The play/movie encourages a deeper reading. Cut off from life's mainstream, the disenchanted characters retreat into alienated states. Jerry is an outlaw sociopath probably destined for more jail time. R.C. is a party girl with more options than the others. She does what she can for Agnes and wisely takes off when things get too weird. Brian F. O'Byrne plays Dr. Sweet, who tracks Peter down to Agnes' motel room. Sweet's measured sincerity may be authentic, or he may be exactly the kind of deceiver that Peter says he is.
Agnes and Peter are pathetic kooks who lose their grip on reality, but they're not all that different from the rest of society. Many of us are cut off from a real sense of social belonging, and almost all of us rely on tainted sources of information to draw our judgments about the world around us. There are documented cases of the military engaging in horrendous experiments on unknowing soldiers, so finding the line between rational skepticism and paranoid hysteria is not easy. We're also bombarded with conflicting messages about dangers in the food we eat and the air we breathe, so the idea that some unforeseen contagion could bring us down is not all that farfetched. What about pesticides, asbestos, or the dust at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center? The side effects patter on the drug ads shown during the 6 O'Clock News is a kind of horror movie in itself.
It would be damaging to the viewing experience to explain Bug in more detail. Agnes and Peter form a strong but definitely destructive relationship; being beaten by Jerry Gross has a more promising outcome. William Friedkin directs the movie with great skill, focusing our attentions on the characters without heavy stylistic effects, and emphasizing the way that one person's mania reinforces another's. Agnes' sexual vitality and sense of remorse for her son seems to fuel Peter's all-enveloping belief in a massive conspiracy. The show helps us understand how, if led by a dynamic personality, militant separatists and cultish worshippers could easily drive themselves to a terrible fate. If Bug is a horror movie, it belongs to a new subgenre of paranoid thriller.
Lionsgate's Special Edition DVD of Bug is a beautiful enhanced transfer of a film with dark, rich images. William Friedkin's commentary has a bit too much play-by-play description but he does convey how the play captured his imagination. In a separate lengthy interview section he answers specific questions about his career, the film and his ideas of where movies are going. He's honest about his own screen work, acknowledging that in the 1970s he had the freedom to do anything he wanted, but now must work for years to assemble the financing package to get a film made. BUG, an Introduction is a better than average making-of featurette. Subtitles are offered in English and Spanish.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Featurette, interview with William Friedkin
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: Oct 1, 2007
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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