Appellate Judge Tom Becker is as industrious as an ant, as persistent as a gnat, and as prolific as a cockroach.
Our review of Bug, published October 8th, 2004, is also available.
I am the super mother bug!
William Friedkin won an Oscar at age 36 for directing the gritty, pulse-pounding cop classic, 1971's The French Connection. In 1973, he directed one of the most iconic of all films, The Exorcist. Friedkin's fortunes started falling in 1980, when he made the critically reviled (though currently being reconsidered) Cruising. Since then, his career has produced more misses (Jade, Deal of the Century) than commercial or critical hits (To Live and Die in L.A.).
In 2006, Friedkin directed Bug, which had a brief theatrical run in 2007. Will this Special Edition disc from Lionsgate show us an underappreciated masterpiece or a misstep?
Facts of the Case
Agnes (Ashley Judd, Ruby in Paradise) is living a dead-end life in Oklahoma, residing at a rundown motel and fearing the return of her ex-con ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr., Independence Day). One night, R.C. (Lynn Collins, The Number 23), her only real friend, brings over a guy named Peter (Michael Shannon, The Woodsman), and he ends up crashing on Agnes's couch. He's gone the next morning, and then Jerry shows up and smacks Agnes around, then leaves. Peter comes back, and Agnes finds herself drawn to him.
But Peter's not a well-wrapped package. He's an army deserter, he says, and was the subject of some military experiments. They injected him with things, bugs, he says. As a matter-of-fact, there are bugs all over the room now, tiny, crawling, flying, biting things.
They've infested him, says Peter.
They've infested the room, says Peter.
And now that he and Agnes have made love, they've infested her, too.
At least, that's what Peter says.
Bug started out as a play by Tracy Letts and has had successful productions in Chicago and London, as well as Off-Broadway. While I've never seen Bug the play, I imagine it was an exciting theatrical experience.
Unfortunately, a lot of that excitement is lost in this translation to film. Bug the movie is extremely theatrical, and not in a good way.
In theater, particularly theater with an absurdist bent, outrageous characters in extraordinary situations can be fascinating, funny, and terrifying. Film tends to point up the artificial nature of such characters and situations, which are often toned down or rethought for the medium.
Bug is not a "filmed play," like the televised productions of House of Blue Leaves or True West; instead, it's like a stage presentation with the actors being followed around with cameras. The occasional cinematic touches—handheld camera, artsy montage during sex scene—seem intrusive.
The film has a three-act structure and most of the action is confined to a single set, Agnes's cramped room. There are all kinds of themes floating around—loneliness, paranoia, insidious government intrusion, psychological breakdown, privacy in the information age, co-dependency—and there's a stylized science-fiction overlay. It is very dialogue-heavy. As a play, it makes sense that we are told more than we see, but as a film, it's all too talky and obvious. Dialogue that probably worked well on stage sounds contrived and precious here.
Ashley Judd doesn't overact so much as she theater acts, with unnatural cadences to her speech and movements. She's not quite putting it out there for the balcony, but her unsubtle indicating would be welcome by the group in the middle of the lower mezzanine. Judd is a gifted, underrated talent who can make crap like Double Jeopardy tolerable. She really puts her all into this performance; it's a shame that Friedkin didn't rein her in a bit.
Michael Shannon originated the part of Peter in Chicago, New York, and London; if his performance on stage was anything like his performance here, I'm guessing it was worth the price of the ticket. He certainly knows the character and is at home delivering long monologues on topics ranging from (surprise!) bugs to government conspiracies, real (the Tuskegee airmen) and arguable (the Jonestown massacre was actually the result of government testing). In one scene, his "bug infestation" causes him to hop on a bed and start flopping about like a fish on electroshock. I'm sure he brought down the house when he did it live, but here it just seems like Friedkin sending a "remember when?" card to Father Karras and Regan MacNeil.
Harry Connick Jr. pops in for a couple of scenes as Agnes's abusive ex-husband. I honestly don't know what the point was of having this character in the film. He cold cocks Agnes and then tells her he loves her (classic abuser!), has some snappy dialogue, and provides a bit of exposition. This type of character makes more sense in a play than a film.
Bug becomes progressively gruesome as Peter and Agnes grow more obsessed with the bugs that only they can see and feel. There are some disgusting scenes of the couple maiming themselves as they try to root out aphids that, Peter says, are living under their respective skins (and in a turn-away-from-the-screen moment, under Peter's teeth). Friedkin shoots these scenes like a horror movie, and they are truly unsettling, but they also seem exploitative, a gory sop to get fans of Saw and Hostel to see this film.
Judd has a long monologue near the end of the film, in which she finally "puts together all the pieces" and "figures out" the bug infestation/government experimentation/conspiracy business. You will either find it soul-searingly brilliant or the worst piece of overacting since Patty Duke's mad scenes in Valley of the Dolls. As written, it seems less like an epiphany of paranoid delusion than like an expository punch line from a writer who had a lot of cool ideas but couldn't find an honest or cohesive way to tie them together.
Lionsgate gives us a good transfer of this intentionally grubby-looking film. The big plus, though, is the audio, particularly the Dolby 5.1 track. The film is all sounds—buzzing, crunching, ringing, tapping, scraping, sizzling. There are very few completely quiet moments, and the soundtrack feeds into the sense of paranoia that permeates the proceedings. These sounds are best when they're subtle; like everything else here, they are sometimes so obvious as to be pandering. Didn't we get enough of the ceiling-fan-as-helicopter in Apocalypse Now?
Friedkin's commentary track is interesting if not especially inviting. He offers a kind of narration subtext to what is happening on screen, as though he is reading notes from a shooting script. Some of the commentary merely tells us what we are seeing ("The room is now filled with bug sprays, fly paper, anti-insect repellant"); some of it helps us better understand what Friedkin was going for in terms of themes and character. Unfortunately, without Friedkin's explanations, these ideas don't always come across. We do get a better understanding of Friedkin's attraction to the material. While he speaks in a measured, professorial way, it's almost a sales pitch. We can imagine Friedkin giving this narration to a distributor in order to sell this difficult film.
"Bug: An Introduction" is a standard "making of" feature with Friedkin and the four principle actors, including a not-too-far-out-of-character Shannon. I was hoping to get some background on the play or a little more insight into the themes, but it was not to be.
Far more rewarding is a 25-minute "discussion" with Friedkin, in which he answers questions that we see posted on the screen. The director is plain-spoken and engaging, and quite candid about his career. It's interesting to hear his take on filmmaking in the '70s, in that he doesn't seem to buy into the idealization of that decade as the "golden years" for independent-thinking directors.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This film certainly has its champions, and it is unquestionably unlike anything out there from a "name" director and starring a "name" actress. Both Judd and Shannon give courageous performances here, and much of the film is actually very funny.
Some people will find this edgy, riveting, and unique. I just don't happen to be among them.
Contrived and stagy, bombastic and gross, Bug fails to hit the right marks as a translation of a theatrical experience to film.
I refuse to say, "Get the swatter."
I will say this:
Guilty. And unpleasantly so.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by William Friedkin
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