Bug (2006) / Thriller-Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language, and some drug use
Running time: 102 min.
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts (based on his play)
Bug is a strange sort of film, and hard to recommend outright. While I'm ultimately giving it a passable grade, it certainly should find its share of ardent fans, especially among those who like creepy, original films that hold their attention. It's based on a play written by Tracy Letts, who also provides the screenplay. Although it starts off in a lesbian bar, once the action shifts to Agnes's motel apartment, it pretty much remains there for the duration.
Ashley Judd (Twisted, Frida) plays Agnes, a lonely Oklahoma waitress receiving persistent phone calls from an unknown source she is sure is her ex-husband, Jerry (Connick Jr., Basic), recently let out of prison. It is then that Agnes is introduced to Peter (Shannon, Bad Boys II), a shy and quirky stranger who she lets end up staying in her motel room overnight. The two soon form a friendship, and then take it a step further, but complications arise when Jerry shows up, making demands and resuming his abuse on her physically and verbally. Meanwhile, as the relationship between Agnes and Peter solidifies, he begins to see things that can't be seen, manifesting in small bugs that he thinks are in his system as a result of experimentation done while he was in the Army, causing him to finally go AWOL.
Although marketed as some sort of horror film, it's not. It does have some horrific moments, but for the most part, the story walks a fine line between psychological terror and very dark comedy, injecting bits of romance, mystery, sci-fi, and suspense at various points. What it might more accurately be called is a character study of a relationship between a (presumably) paranoid schizophrenic and a lonely, abused woman. It's interesting how she makes excuses for being with Peter, no matter how delusional he seems to get, and even defends his behavior as rational, even picking up on all of his strange quirks without much second guessing past the initial bug appearance. Both take a long, treacherous slide into madness, as she subconsciously appeases his strange behavior, while the isolation and the reinforcement he gets from his new partner only adds to the feelings of justification for his thoughts and actions.
Bug is directed by the legendary William Friedkin (The Hunted, Rules of Engagement), the man responsible for at least two classics of their respective genres, The French Connection for thrillers and The Exorcist for horror. Though Bug ultimately isn't strong enough in any one direction to fit neatly into a particular genre, it is also the most refreshing aspect of it. It's not a film that is easily pigeonholed for definable mass consumption.
Bug isn't really about bugs, although it certainly does milk its bug theme for all it's worth. It stats off with Agnes being constantly bugged by her telephone calls, becoming a litter bug in a later scene, trying to rid of bugs infesting her apartment and body, and even delves into electronic bugs that may have been placed in the mind of Peter during the Army experimentation he is sure he underwent.
The performances are very strong in the film, often going wildly over the top, but not in a way that takes you out of the moment. This is, after all, about two people so secluded from the outside world that they feed off of each other's manic anxieties, with both amplifying them more and more, to the utmost degree. This may be Judd's strongest performance in a film, in a bare-all role, not only in the nudity but also in the raw emotional state of her vulnerable character. Michael Shannon, who reprises his role from the stage play, is effectively creepy and disturbing, though not in a way that ever makes him ever be detestable.
I'm going to venture that Bug is going to have a small, loyal audience, as it is a strange film, with a sense of gruesome atmosphere that will most likely turn off mainstream viewers, particularly those who fall for the studio's marketing of it as a straight horror flick. This is a bleak, harrowing look into an unhealthy relationship so nasty, only the jet-black comedy aspects manage to save it from being too unpalatable for anyone. You might love it, you might hate it, but one thing's for sure -- it takes risks, and it commands your attention throughout. It's not an easy film to watch at times, or even to like -- I think that's the best term to call the film: uneasy. If there were ever a subgenre called "extreme edge drama", this one would certainly qualify. Like the pesky aphids that plague Peter's world, it gets under your skin and forces you to scratch.
©2007 Vince Leo