Bug (2007) dir. William Friedkin
Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr.
Review by Greg Klymkiw
Without question, “Bug” is one of the most compelling, terrifying and compulsively watchable pictures to grace the screen in quite some time. Directed by William Friedkin, that venerable master of all that can be deliciously and artfully nasty-minded in cinema, it is a picture that some might even view as a bit of a comeback for the filmmaker who unleashed, among many others, “The Exorcist”, “The French Connection” and “Cruising”. I am, however, not all that fond of the notion of comebacks – especially as they relate to men of Friedkin’s talent and vision – as Norma Desmond said, “it’s the pictures that got smaller”, and certainly in the case of Friedkin, the motion picture industry and the marketplace itself has changed, and certainly not for the better.
“Bug” tells the seemingly simple tale of a lonely working class woman (Ashley Judd) who finds a glimmer of happiness with a mysterious handsome stranger (Michael Shannon), only to be drawn into his web of paranoia. By finding love, they also discover pain, and eventually true happiness proves to be as elusive and delusional as their respective and, finally, collective states of mind.
In the end, does this really sound that simple? To be frank, it isn’t. In fact, one almost wants to avoid lavishing too much (or even any) attention to the plot since, for most of the picture’s running time, “Bug” careens madly into very dangerous and surprising territory. So surprising, in fact, that one of the minor disappointments is that the script by Tracy Letts (from his play of the same name) veers into some not-so-surprising territory in the last third of the picture’s running time.
However, for the first two-thirds of the picture, one never really gets a handle on where it is going. And in an age of cookie-cutter story telling, being surprised with every turn is not only rare, but in the case of “Bug”, supremely engaging and, even during some especially stomach-turning moments, entertainment of the highest order.
Friedkin is responsible for so much of this. Based on a theatrical piece, the movie wisely does not betray its roots but enhances them in a wholly cinematic way. Since most of the picture involves two people (with a handful of occasional “interlopers”) in one motel room, this could have (in less capable hands) been a dull, dreary mess. Friedkin keeps us glued to the screen with a keen eye that makes every shot a pleasure to look at, but also resonating with dramatic intensity. Not that the style is intrusive or obvious – it is, in fact, a delicious bird’s eye view of two people spiraling into a pit of insanity presented with verve and honesty. This should come as no surprise to Friedkin followers. His early career as a documentary filmmaker in addition to his years of experience as a visual storyteller serves him very well. He has also adapted theatre to the big screen – most notably with the slightly dated, but still groundbreaking motion picture of Mart Crowley’s play “The Boys In The Band”. Friedkin is not one of those filmmakers who fall into the cliché of having to unnaturally “open up” a theatrical work and/or gussy it up with overly fussy visual details. Friedkin embraces the proscenium in a variety of inventive ways – preserving the claustrophobic intensity of the piece, but allowing it to still breathe as a work of cinema.
But perhaps Friedkin’s greatest gift as a storyteller is his audacity. When necessary, he will push the boundaries, up the ante and shove us headfirst into territory that most filmmakers who prefer to hide from or even worse, try to mute. Not Friedkin. He ‘rub our noses’ in the worlds of his various films and succeeds admirably. Can anyone forget how far Friedkin took us in “The Exorcist”? Developing compelling characters and charting their journeys with the precision of a master documentarian and slowly building to a series of crescendos in which he earned and flung all manner of visceral atrocities in our face. Friedkin ensured that “The Exorcist” would be a true classic with lasting value by never forgetting that movies are a rollercoaster ride and that one must build to the peaks and valleys of terror with skill and precision to make sure that the moments of viscera stay with us forever. In “Cruising”, Friedkin blended the tried and true ‘policier’ with a descent into a sexy, thrilling, Bosch-like world of gay S&M clubs. Some found this offensive and/or homophobic - too bad for them. They lose. It was supposed to be thrilling. And so it was. And in “The French Connection” who can ever forget the moments of utter terror behind the wheel of Gene Hackman’s speeding car as it tore through the grubby, crowded streets of New York in pursuit of a train? With “Bug”, Friedkin takes us on an equally compelling rollercoaster ride.
As thrilling and memorable as the ride is, there is a point in the story where one gets a nagging feeling that it could go in a certain and potentially ho-hum direction, but because the picture has been surprising you all along and because the ride has been so happily infused with style, you repress your doubts and believe it will go into more unpredictable directions. The ride continues and it is still thrilling, but the eventual outcome was what you predicted at that earlier juncture and this is a bit of a drag.
But no matter: there are so few movies around these days as provocative and stunningly directed as “Bug” that one can forgive a flaw that can sink most other pictures.
The performance Friedkin coaxes from a slightly de-glammed, but still delectably sexy Ashley Judd is a tour-de-force – ranging from shy submission to out and out over-the-top insanity. Michael Shannon has had plenty of time to perfect his performance as the paranoid war vet on the stage, but he seems as fresh as if he were doing it for the first time. And in a supporting role as Judd’s psychotically abusive ex, Harry Connick Jr. shocks and surprises with a performance that is as sexy as it is terrifying.
The recent DVD release of “Bug” will provide a great opportunity for audiences to acquaint themselves with this picture which was completely mishandled theatrically – marketed as a pure horror film and plunked into all the wrong venues. Alas, the supplementary features leave quite a bit to be desired. Friedkin makes a better picture than he does delivering feature-length commentaries. His disappointing drone spends far too much time telling us things we already can see and an equal amount of time telling us things we do not really need to know (story issues that are ultimately not as deep as Friedkin makes them out to be). It would have been so much more interesting to hear Friedkin walk us through his process in terms of shot set-up, decisions regarding coverage and other practical issues of his art. We get a smattering of them in the EPK-like doc accompanying the feature as well as the intro segment, and while welcome, they’re so skimpy as to be truly unsatisfying – especially since we expect to get more on the commentary track.
In any event, “Bug” is as must-see motion picture. Even if you end up hating it, you’ll probably admire it anyway for both audacity and relentless directorial virtuosity.