Saturday, 2 June 2007
Bug (2007) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr.
“Bug” is really frustrating, for two-thirds the film is unpredictable and genre-defying, but the other third is uninspired and extremely predictable. I suspect part of the reason is its mis-marketing as a “Saw-like” horror film, when in reality it’s a claustrophobic three-hander, more in common with an Edward Albee play than a traditional Lionsgate film. In fact, the film was based on a stage play by the screenwriter Tracey Letts, which ran Off-Off-Broadway in 2004.
It’s a hot and sweaty night in Oklahoma, trailer-trash Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is partying with her friend R.C. at a local bar. They come back to Agnes’ seedy motel to continue the evening, bringing home with them a mysterious friend, Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). Peter is quiet and shy, and keeps saying, “don’t worry, I’m not an axe murderer”. Despite the creepiness he has a geeky innocence to him that Agnes is attracted to. Peter, who doesn’t have a place to stay, sleeps on Agnes coach for the night.
Meanwhile, Agnes’ abusive ex-husband Jerry has just been released from prison and is expected home any day now. This fear of dread with Jerry is set up well and Friedkin layers the suspense thick with close-ups of air conditioners, beads of sweat on Agnes’ face and frequent startling telephone rings. There’s also a constant buzzing of crickets that makes even the quiet moments tense. The suspense is so thick we expect to be startled at any moment. But Friedkin is smart and we slowly learn this isn’t a cheap-thrills thriller.
Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) does arrive and instantly causes trouble with Agnes and he is threatened by the presence of Peter. Agnes feels safer with Peter and vice versa. They bond over a discussion of Agnes’ past which earns trust in one another. As a result they engage in passionate sweaty sex.
Real trouble starts when Peter discovers what he thinks is an outbreak of aphid infestation in Agnes’ room. The bugs are small but are everywhere. Paranoia envelopes Peter and then Agnes and they both become embroiled in an obsessive desire to eradicate themselves of the harmful tiny insects. That’s all I need to say at this point because the less viewers know of the film the better.
As mentioned two-thirds of the film is just plain brilliant. I went in expecting a horror film but I was pleasured by three wonderful actors with strong dialogue playing complex characters. Harry Connick Jr. is a standout. His large presence commands the screen, and his screen introduction is as memorable as introductions get. But it’s Judd’s film. She’s not afraid to get dirty, and bare herself physically and emotionally. She’s both strong and highly vulnerable at the same time. Michael Shannon is also a revelation, a veteran character actor from action films (“Bad Boys II”) and war movies (“Tigerland”, “Pearl Harbour”); he is given a complex lead and delivers a fine performance.
But a third of the film fails and unfortunately takes the wind out of it. The relationship part of the story is cast aside once we find out exactly what is going on. And when this is revealed the film follows a very predictable path of exploitation. WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD…. the film had the potential to spin itself into a new direction in the third act, with the introduction of Dr. Sweet who has been looking for Peter around town. His dialogue scene is intense, but nothing comes of it, and instead Friedkin and Letts choose to cop out by killing him in a grizzly R-Rated death scene. The delusions of Agnes and Evans also get hammered home to the audience to the point of tedium and overkill. These scenes are over-the-top and don’t reflect the careful measured performances earlier in the film. And the biggest disappointment is the lack of resolution with Harry Connick Jr.’s character.
Therefore my feelings are mixed, but I must applaud the surprise comeback for Mr. Friedkin who made some of the finest films of the 70’s (“French Connection”, “The Exorcist”, “Sorcerer”) and then produced mostly ‘misses’ for the rest of his career. But at 71, its official, Billy Friedkin is back. Let’s start getting him the good scripts – no more Jades or Rules of Engagements.