It's a shame that the success of the Hostel and Saw films inspired some marketing genius at Lionsgate to promote William Friedkin's adaptation of the Off-Broadway play Bug as an 'extreme' horror film - because it's not. While there are a couple of grisly moments in the picture, this is an exercise in cinematic claustrophobia and paranoia, not a gore picture or a slasher film. If the recurring theme in Friedkin's work is how circumstance can change a person, Bug fits right in with the rest of his work but on many other levels, he's treading new ground with this film and, quite frankly, he does a damn good job with it.
The story follows Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a waitress at a lesbian bar out in rural Oklahoma. Agnes has seen better days, and is currently living in a dumpy little motel room at the side of the highway. She also has a taste for drugs and alcohol. One night her friend, R. C. (Lynn Collins), shows up with a strange, quirky man named Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). The three of them are to go to a party but something comes up and R. C. has to leave. Peter spends the night at Agnes' place and the next morning goes to get some food. While he's out, Agnes wakes up and is surprised to find a man in the shower - a man who isn't Peter. It turns out that her abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), has been let out of jail and that he's back to rekindle their relationship whether she likes it or not. Jerry leaves, telling Agnes that he's got to take care of some business, but he makes a point of saying that he'll be back. Soon, Agnes and Peter begin a romance but when Peter finds a bug in the bed, a tiny aphid which Agnes can't see, things start to get strange.
The more time Agnes and Peter spend together, the more prominent the bug issue seems to become, the only problem is that no one else can see them. Soon, the two deduce that Agnes' room is completely infested. As they deal with the problem Peter begins to tell Agnes what he believes to be the truth about his past and how it relates to their current situation. And then there's his recurring toothache...
Bug starts off as more of a character drama than anything resembling a horror film. We learn about Agnes' past, her issues with her ex-husband, the details surrounding the mystery of their child and about her lifestyle in general. From there, we learn through Agnes' conversations with Peter about his background and about some of his more unusual character traits. It's only once the characters are established that Friedkin lets things get strange. While neither Peter nor Agnes are saints, we get to know them enough that even if we don't necessarily like them, we're at least able to feel for them and we certainly know enough about them that they matter to us for the hour and forty minutes for which the film runs.
Working off of a screenplay written by Tracy Letts (who based it on his own play), the film is shot very much like a stage production. The vast majority of the film takes place in the hotel room with only Agnes and Peter on screen and as such, the film has an extremely tight, claustrophobic feel that perfectly captures the increasing mania that the central characters are experiencing. As the films gets stranger, the cinematography works in such a way that it intensifies this feeling resulting in a final twenty-minutes that are memorable as much for what they don't explain to us as much as for how they wrap things up. You won't likely see this ending coming and the film doesn't present all the answers to the audience, instead it gives us just enough to come up with our own interpretation of how much is real versus how much is happening in the lead character's heads. The film doesn't end, so much as it just stops but it is certainly a unique and appropriate way to conclude the story.
Aside from the pacing, the character development, the twists and the cinematography, the film also really benefits from two fantastic performances. While Ashley Judd comes dangerously close to going over the top during the finale, she never quite goes there and for the bulk of the film she does very well as the sympathetic downtrodden lead. We can believe that Agnes is, quit simply, a very broken woman and this is important in setting up her relationship with Peter. It also plays a key role in why things turn out the way they do, her absolute need for a resolution to the mystery of what happened to her son hanging so heavily over her head that she'll accept any answer, no matter how insane it may sound. The real star of the show, however, is Michael Shannon. As Peter he's quiet for much of the film but is always completely in character and he is simply perfect for the part. He looks like you'd expect someone in this situation to look, somewhat distant and aloof, and his performance is nothing short of amazing. Solid supporting work from Harry Connick Jr. (who is quite menacing here) and Lynn Collins flesh out the cast quite well.
Those expecting a film about man-eating insects will certainly be thrown for a loop with Friedkin's film but fans of psychological horror who don't necessarily need everything spelled out for them should find much food for thought here in this creepy, slick and well acted thriller.
Lionsgate gives Bug a good 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that does a good job with color reproduction but which exhibits a bit of digital noise in some of the darker scenes, particularly in the later part of the film where the tin foil comes into play. Grain is present but never overpowering and there aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts though some slight edge enhancement pops up here and there. Black levels look pretty solid and detail is strong throughout. Flesh tones look lifelike and natural and for the most part the movie looks quite good on this DVD.
Audio options are provided in an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix with an alternate English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track available alongside optional English and Spanish subtitles. This is a fairly dialogue-centric film and as such the surrounds aren't used as often as in other, more action intensive films but the moments where they do kick in are handled well and pack a bit of a bunch. It's never a problem understanding the performers as the dialogue stays clean and clear throughout. Bass response is strong and the score sounds quite good. There are some nice moments where the ambient noise swells up in the background creating some fairly rich atmosphere and mood. English closed captioning is also provided.
First up, as far as the supplements are concerned, is an interesting audio commentary track with director William Friedkin. In this discussion he talks about how he first became familiar with the play that the film is based on and how he got Tracey Letts to adapt his own stage play for the big screen. He covers casting decisions and explains why he wanted Michael Shannon to play the male lead and he also talks about shooting the film on sets and how these sets were constructed. As with this commentary for Cruising, Friedkin does tend to simply tell us what's happening on the screen too often, but he also provides some interesting subtext and explanations for some of the more unusual aspects of the story. It's here that the commentary track shines, as although it's easy enough for the viewer to take away his or her own interpretation of the film, Friedkin's thoughts on some of the more abstract aspects of the story are certainly interesting and worth listening to.
From there, check out the ten-minute Bug: An Introduction which serves as a brief making-of featurette. Here you'll find interviews and comments from Friedkin as well as from performers Michael Shannon, Ashley Judd, Lynn Collins and Harry Connick Junior. It's not as in-depth as it should have been and more information on the play that the film is based on would have been welcome but it's worth checking out for a few of the stories and anecdotes that come across.
The last main supplement is A Discussion With William Friedkin which is a fun, twenty-five minute sit down chat with the director who speaks here not only about Bug but also about a few of his other pictures. As questions appear on the screen in text format, Friedkin answers them candidly and honestly, explaining the reasoning behind his fairly minimal directorial output and what it was like to be an in-demand director during the tumultuous seventies when American cinema was changing. This is quite an interesting talk and Friedkin comes across as an intelligent, honest and amicable man.
Rounding out the extra features are trailers for other Lionsgate DVD properties, a DVD credits screen, animated menus and chapter selection.
A bleak and unsettling psychological thriller, Bug is a far more intelligent and effective film than it got credit for during its theatrical run. Judd and Shannon both deliver excellent performances and Friedkin lays on the tension and ensures that the film builds to a satisfyingly eerie conclusion. Lionsgate's DVD looks and sounds quite good and the supplements are interesting and compliment the picture nicely. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.