Bug gets under your skin and that’s quite a compliment considering how many movies are made nowadays that elicit no more than a shrug of the shoulders. Indeed, its intentional scuzziness is so effective that it leaves you with two chief emotions; the desire to scrub yourself down; and never wanting to watch it again. As an adaptation of a play, it’s a fine example of how to combine cinematic technique with faithfulness to the source and as a movie, it’s grim, harrowing and totally compelling. Indeed, it’s William Friedkin’s best film since To Live and Die in LA and goes some way to restoring his reputation as one of those directors who makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.
It’s hard to know how much of the plot to give away and, indeed, this may be one of my shorter reviews as a result of this uncertainty. Much of the impact of the film lies the specific turn of events during the second half when a quirky love story darkens into psychological horror. What I can tell you is that Ashley Judd plays Agnes White, a somewhat bedraggled waitress living in a seedy motel. One night, through the intervention of her lesbian friend RC (Collins), Agnes meets Peter (Shannon), a stranger whom she takes home. The two make an instant connection through their loneliness and Agnes invites Peter to stay the night – which he does, although celibately since he tells her that it’s been a long time since he’s slept with someone. Peter is shy and hesitant to speak but he reveals that has a nagging toothache and we know that he sometimes hears the sound of helicopters. The next morning, Agnes’s ex-husband Jerry (a scary if one-note Connick Jr) shows up and menaces her, much to Peter’s discomfort. Later on, Agnes and Peter have sex but during the aftermath, Peter complains of being bitten by a bug...
This first half hour of the film is beautifully played by Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon and written with exquisite sensitivity by Tracy Letts who also penned the original play. We like these people; they are quirky but not outlandishly so and when they form a connection it’s immensely satisfying. Ashley Judd has never been better than she is here – vulnerable and frightened but maintaining a strong core of self-reliance – and she makes a fine pair with Michael Shannon who played the role of Peter for years on Broadway and has it down to a fine art. It’s possible that Shannon is perhaps a little too familiar with the role and may lack the freshness that a new actor would bring to it but his total immersion in the character means that every subtlety and undercurrent is brought out – the performance is a writer’s dream. The scenes between the two – and the encounter with Jerry – are well directed by Friedkin who resists the temptation to open the play out and merely includes a few perfunctory scene-setting moments in the lesbian bar where Agnes works. I’m not so sure about Lynn Collins as RC. She’s a fine actress but when she plays a lesbian, it’s a studied impersonation of a lesbian and not an immersion in an original character – that may be a fault in the writing. Certainly, the character of RC seems like an afterthought and we’re no more interested in her than Tracy Letts is.
The tone shifts after the first half hour into some very dark places indeed and I don’t want to spoil your appreciation of the film by spoiling it. But it’s worth mentioning that William Friedkin does a lot better than he has done in recent years at maintaining a consistent pace and allowing the horror to develop rather than thrusting it right into your face. He’s still a pounder as a director – thumping every point until it sticks – but that’s not entirely inappropriate to this kind of intimate drama and at least the points he pounds come straight out of the characters rather than being socio-political as in, say, Rules of Engagement or sexual as in Jade. Tracy Letts isn’t, on this evidence, a particularly original writer but he comes up with great dialogue and has the guts to follow his ideas through to their logical conclusion. In particular, he provides a fantastic monologue for Michael Shannon when Peter explains his view of the world in hideously paranoid detail. The intensity of the film is created by some very close-in work – the camera is often uncomfortably intimate with the actors – and world-class cinematography from Michael Grady who did some similarly uncomfortable work on Wonderland in 2003. By the final half hour, the turn of the events gets increasingly hysterical – and sometimes almost unwatchably gruesome - but Friedkin never errs in his focus on the central characters and his obvious attachment to them allows for an ending which is as heartbreaking as it is frightening.
Bug got a very brief theatrical release last year and now gets a welcome region 2 release from Lions Gate. The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio – Friedkin rarely goes wider than that – and has been anamorphically enhanced. The visuals of the film are often murky and sometimes bathed in heavy coloured light but the transfer copes with these aspects very well. The colours are strong and there is a fine level of detail. I’m not so sure about the blacks – they seem a little washed out – and there is certainly some minor artifacting here and there. But on the whole it’s a very acceptable transfer. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is excellent and something of a surprise in the way that it takes what is basically a two-character drama and finds surround sound moments which are really alarming. The all-important dialogue is always clear and the music score comes over well. There’s also a less impressive English 2.0 track.
There are three extra features. First up is a director’s commentary which hovers between the fascinating and the tedious. It’s interesting when Friedkin is discussing the making of the film and the underlying meanings. Less fascinating are the numerous moments when he simply describes what’s occurring on screen. Secondly, there is a 25 minute chat with Friedkin which is as much about the director’s career as it is about Bug. Finally, there’s a 10 minute making-of featurette which is interesting but inevitably rather superficial.
Subtitles are provided for the film but not for the extra features.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 00:11:43