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Having escaped an abusive ex-husband, Agnes (Ashley Judd), a lonely waitress with a tragic past, moves into a sleazy, run-down motel in the heart of Oklahoma. Co-worker and only friend R.C (Lynn Collins) introduces her to a mysterious man named Peter (Michael Shannon) one night in hopes of bringing her out of her depressed shell. Peter and Agnes hit it off, and things are looking good, that is until they see the first bugs…

Bug
Bug is the kind of film that I enjoyed while entirely understanding why others have hated it. The trailers set it up as an unstoppable fear machine—taut and claustrophobic, filled with images of gory body mutilation, like the ones adorning David Cronenberg’s nastiest features. ‘From the director of The Exorcist’ is the kind of tag line that doesn’t come cheap, and has little to do with the director himself. The promotional EPK’s and magazines pushed the fact that Bug was an actor’s movie, and based on an apparently awesome stage play.

Friedkin himself, based on his comments, seems to think he’s made a serious and dramatically driven horror film. He’s about two thirds right. Bug is a serious and horrifying portrayal of loneliness and domestic violence. Everything about it is low-key and talky, just like a stage play. This unassuming scale seems to have divided critics, and probably led to the film’s tiny theatrical take (though opening against Spider-Man 3 probably didn’t help), but it’s all very well done.

The plot is merely fodder for character studies, social analogies, and smart, occasionally painfully realistic dialogue. The stagecraft and filmmaking is all very minimal (just like a stage play), and Friedkin expertly expends his energy dealing with maintaining the minimal. He hides his cuts, and isn’t afraid to avoid flashy, theatrical lighting and camera movement. Bug could’ve just been directed by any up and comer on the back-lot because of its strong script, but Friedkin’s control is a powerful asset. He’s the steady hand needed to tell the story right.

Bug
The script could’ve worked with a lesser director, maybe even a lower budget, but with a bunch of Z-rate, unrefined twenty-somthings filling its key roles the whole thing would’ve fallen apart. The film is, again, very talky (in a good way), and often the actors speak literal volumes without a cut (just like a stage play). These actors must also demonstrate realistic character shifts in a brief time. In the wrong hands the entire first two acts could’ve been very, very tragic. Michael Shannon, who apparently played the character on stage, Lynn Collins, and Harry Connick Jr. are all fantastic, but I was simply floored by Ashley Judd’s valiant performance.

Judd’s the type of actress I’ve always thought was decent, but her steadfast devotion to awful films has all but sunk her potential. The last time I was impressed with her was when she stared alongside Ewan McGregor in Stephan Elliott’s dreadfully overdone Eye of the Beholder. Frankly I forgot about her. This role is the kind that could’ve been overblown and arch, but Judd manages to craft a deeply affecting and powerful character. Often Friedkin lets the camera linger on her face while Shannon speaks his lines, and her impassioned eyes impress every time. She readily fulfils the obligations of both a stage and film actress. Her over-the-top and unusually grounded descent into madness (not to mention three or four crying scenes) is just the kind of thing the Academy loves to pass out awards for. Judd even uglies herself up a bit. Unfortunately, Bug wasn’t monetarily successful and is classified as a horror film, both problems when it comes to an Oscar nomination. If I were in charge Judd would get one.

But then comes the final act…

Bug
Judd and Shannon (along with third act newcomer Brian F. O'Byrne) start to bubble a lot further over-the-top, veering into the overtly campy acting styles of Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. Friedkin’s visuals follow suit. The hotel room, once beautifully drab, is bathed in silver reflected bug-zapper blue for the last thirty minutes. The environment becomes so overtly alien that it’s easy to lose interest in the story and sympathy for its characters. The intense love between Agnus and Peter is so believable and so realistic for so long, and their tailspin is heartbreaking, but it becomes hard to roll with the punches of their absolute insanity. Suddenly the symbolism becomes the chronicle, and the possibility of Peter’s nutty beliefs being true is all but impossible. As an audience I went from living the claustrophobic nightmare to watching crazy people act crazy. As far as I’m concerned there are no bugs.

Then I realized I was watching a very dark comedy, and the last act is a punch line. Bug is a film that pokes fun at some of the most disturbing facts of modern life—terrorism, mental illness, child abduction, disease, class struggle, paranoia, sexual desires, and unconditional love. But the one joke that winds its way through the entire narrative is the abuse. Agnus is already prone to abuse when we first meet her—she abuses herself with alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes, she has come off a physically and mentally abusive marriage—and she isn’t doing much to fix the problem. Only such a disturbed individual could be taken in by Peter’s exceedingly eccentric charms, and because of it she finds herself in another abusive relationship, though with a man far more extraordinary than the average wife-beater. That’s the joke, and if you find it funny you are a jerk.

Bug

Video


Bug is a brand new movie, so it’s not very surprising that it looks good on DVD. The fine details and ticky-tacky textures are clear but not too clean. There’s quite a bit of fine grain, but it’s a visual asset, and obviously not related to compression problems. Blocking and noise is minimal, and the blacks are deep. Colours are well defined and separated, and the psychedelic third act is bright with neon blues and pinks without blowing out.

Audio


Friedkin is clearly a master of sound, as heard as far back as The Exorcist. His certified 5.1 revamping of his classic film for its 2000 re-release is the sole reason to see it in its re-cut state. Bug’s audio subtly matches its low-key visuals for the most part. There’s very little music in the film, and most of it comes from on-set sources like radios (just like a stage play). The DVD’s Dolby Digital track is mellow for the most part, with clear and centred dialogue and vague audio ambiance in the surround channels. Then Friedkin will toss in an insect like sound-effect, or a scream, or a few seconds of aggressive heavy metal and the surround channels burst to life. The most impressive part of the track, however, has to be the helicopter scenes, which rattled my living room almost as much as the one on screen.

Bug

Extras


First on this decent but modest release is an audio commentary with director William Friedkin. Friedkin’s commentary tracks are always amusing, but usually for the wrong reasons. Friedkin’s the kind of guy that was probably waiting for commentary tracks to catch on with the general public in the wee days of Laser Disc, because he obviously loves to hear himself speak. His voice is the kind even a novice entertainer can impersonate because it’s so abrasive, but he manages to charm rather than grate. This commentary, like so many others, is mostly an on screen narration, but unlike most commentators that simply talk about what’s happening on screen Friedkin also talks about character feelings and points out thematic threads that you’d have to be blind to notice. Come to think of it, it’d work quite well as a descriptive track for the blind. Friedkin sweetens the deal by changing his tone in a mock Vincent Price fashion to make everything sound a little more sinister.

If you're looking for creative insight you might want to skip the commentary and go straight for the two featurettes. The first, ‘BUG: An Introduction’, is the same one I saw on television (I think it was the IFC channel), and isn’t particularly deep, but it will tell you a little something about the stage play version of the story, and features some nice on-set footage. It looks as if the snarling bastard Billy Friedkin that slapped and fired guns at his actors during the filming of The Exorcist has mellowed a bit over the years.

Bug
But really, the whole of the special features come down to ‘A Discussion with William Friedkin’, an interview with Billy alone. Friedkin may botch commentary tracks by the truckload, but he’s a great interview subject. He’s got a mind like a steel trap, and recalls every moment of his glory years with verve and satisfaction. This interview barely scratches the surface of his work on Bug, and is more of a career retrospective. Friedkin goes off on tangents moving every which way, but manages to be enthralling for every one of the nearly thirty minutes. Best of all he talks about new stuff, stuff he hasn’t talked about ad nauseam on the DVD releases of The French Connection or The Exorcist.

Overall


I like jokes that make me feel like a jerk, and I like ballsy third act turnarounds. I like great performances, I like original and strong scripts, I like stories that fill in all the cracks, and most importantly I like to not know exactly what’s going to happen next. I like Bug, and I hope you do to, but you probably won’t. Friedkin fans can look forward to a great interview in the extras section, and audiophiles can enjoy some wicked surround effects, the rest of you may want to test the waters with a rent.


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