DIRECTED BY: William Friedkin
FEATURING: Ashley Judd, , Harry Connick Jr.
PLOT: A lonely and none-too-bright waitress with a tragic past and an abusive ex-con ex-husband takes up with a mysterious man who is convinced that their ramshackle motel room is infested by bugs.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Bug is a well-acted, claustrophobic and dramatic exploration of paranoia that’s worth catching, but the mildly insane third act isn’t quite mad enough to get the movie involuntarily committed as one of the weirdest of all time.
COMMENTS: If you’re into paranoid delusion as entertainment, Bug is a must-see; if you’re not, it’s still worth a watch for its oft-clever script, excellent performances (especially Ashley Judd’s tragic white-trash turn), and uneven but whacked-out finale. Bug‘s origins as a stage play are always apparent—it plays out almost completely inside a dingy weekly-rate motel room that represents the protagonists sealed-off psyches—so don’t expect to get much fresh air or wide-open vistas. It’s slow-building, but always intense and claustrophobic, and the unrelieved tension may weary you after a while.
One things for sure: it’s an actor’s movie. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon get the lion’s share of the lines, while the supporting characters—led by a buff, slick and abusive Harry Connick, Jr. as an abusive ex—present a layer of seediness in the external world that suggest fantastical escapism, however skewed, might be preferable to harsh reality. Shannon, who enters the scene as a mysterious stranger, conveys the fact that something is “off” about his character from the get-go merely through his disconcerting calmness and odd cadences (which lead to increasingly odd monologues). Shannon’s Peter is too alien for us to identify with, though, so all our empathy naturally flows to Judd’s Agnes, who may not be the brightest bulb in the marquee but who surely doesn’t deserve the misfortunes that fate has visited on her. Judd does a bang-up job, redeeming herself after a number of forgettable performances; she succeeds by projecting a hollow loneliness that sells her character’s improbable descent into madness as the only sane option open to her. Her line “I’d rather talk to you about bugs than nobody about nothin'” tells you all you most of what you need to know about her character; her often repeated “I don’t understand” tells you the rest.
Judd and Shannon begin an unlikely and desperate romance that’s hampered by an apparent infestation of tiny bugs in their mattress. Bug strips and microscopes start to multiply in the tiny hovel as Peter’s obsession grows, but things don’t get truly weird until the odd couple line the walls with tinfoil to garble the CIA’s incoming (or outgoing) radio transmissions. By the time an unnaturally smug psychiatrist suddenly arrives looking for Peter, pausing in his attempt to convince Agnes to turn over the escapee to take a bong hit, we’re can no longer be certain whether we’re seeing events through a camera’s objective lens, or whether we’re watching Agnes’ version of reality, which as is distorted as the light cast by the blue-bug zappers bouncing off the foil-crinkled walls of the motel room. The finale is intense, verging on overwrought, and inevitably a downer. Tonally out-of-place blood and scenes of gruesome home dentistry seem inserted to fulfill a contractual gore quota set by distributor Lionsgate so they could market Bug as a horror film. It’s not, unless you’re horrified by the mind’s ability to skew reality to salvage some kind of emotional sense out of an impossibly cruel world.
Tracy Letts adapted the screenplay from his own off-Broadway play. Shannon originated the role of Peter onstage.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The shift in tone — reflected in the ever more panicky language, the anti-insect redecoration of the room and the gruesomeness of the violence — takes us from what begins as a grim, familiar drama into something much weirder. By the end, you wonder if you’re not hallucinating too… the creepiness of it gets under your skin. But ‘Bug’s’ relentless unpleasantness, which Friedkin bogs us down in instead of crystallizing it into what might have been a stylish head trip, can get to be a chore.”–Carina Chocano, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)