BUG - ***
I recently returned from a road trip across the desert southwest. When you travel those highways, you can see the dilapidated remnants of old motels and shops that were once bustling signposts along the way to the upcoming promised land of California. Now they stand alone, filled with a sense of desperation and decay. Your mind wanders as you drive, and you begin to imagine the kind of people that now inhabit these modern-day ghost towns.
With that trip still fresh in my mind, I went to see William Friedkin’s film adaptation of Tracy Lett’s play, “Bug.” The film takes place in that very same desert country, and is populated with exactly the kind of people I imagined to live there, and I was immediately transported back to my journey.
In the film, Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a lonely, searching woman who works in a lesbian bar and is still reeling from her son’s kidnapping years earlier. She’s also aware that her abusive ex-husband Jerry (played a very menacing Harry Connick, Jr.) is out on parole and may return at any moment.
When Agnes is introduced to Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), he seems to be the kind of guy who just might be her savior. Shy, intuitive and protective, Peter soon wins the damaged Agnes over and the two begin a romance. But it isn’t long after they make love that Peter begins to notice bugs. In their sheets. In the motel room Agnes lives in. And potentially under their skins.
When Jerry returns and begins to threaten her, Agnes draws even closer to Peter, who, we are beginning to realize, might actually be suffering from serious mental problems. As he begins to drown in his paranoid delusions of government conspiracies and insect infestations, Agnes follows suit, and it isn’t long before the two of them retreat into a crazed world of self-mutilation and destruction.
This is a flawed but effective film. Since it is basically a filmed play, and is confined to one setting, there is the danger of it becoming stagy. Happily, Friedkin has done some great direction here, keeping the focus on the actors and allowing them to take us places the confines of the setting cannot.
Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are superb. Judd has finally shed her “woman/cop/falsely-accused wife in peril” roles, and has become a fierce and intuitive actress again. She’s amazing here, and very brave. Even if the screenplay does veer into some too-crazy directions towards the end, Judd does the role justice. Shannon is her equal, and the two play well off of each other to form one of the sickest relationships I’ve seen onscreen in quite awhile.
Like I said, the film doesn’t always work and sometimes the language – which might work well on the stage – doesn’t always seem the right fit for the screen. Also, a few strange character and plot mechanics towards the end almost threaten to ruin the whole thing.
The amazing actors keep this ride on its rails.
The film is being badly marketed as a horror film of some kind. It isn’t. It’s a psychological mind-twisting study of a delusional relationship, and might be a huge disappointment to those going in expecting something else. I say take a chance on it. You won’t be as challenged by any other summer movie coming up.
BUG. Dir: William Friedkin; Scr: Tracy Letts, based on his play; Stars: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr. 102 mins. Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use.