Saying that Bug is the best film to come from William Friedkin in years isn’t saying all that much from my perspective, since apart from The Boys in the Band (1970) and The Exorcist (1973), I’ve never really understood his creditable reputation. (And, truth to tell, I place much of the value of The Exorcist on William Peter Blatty’s screen adaptation of his novel—and find the more “Blattyfied” version with the extra scenes that was released in 2000 to be the stronger film.) It’s not so much Friedkin’s technical proficiency that escapes me—he has a distinctly kinetic style—as it is his tendency to create movies that work in bits and pieces, but not as a whole.
Look at his 1990 horror film The Guardian (I dare you). It has some good scenes and a nice look, but Friedkin seems unable to separate the intense from the merely silly (a villainess whose leg has just fallen off is a remarkably unpersuasive threat)—and the merely silly wins. Pretty much the same thing happened with Friedkin’s last film, The Hunted (2003), which was a stupid action flick that he seems to have thought he could transmute into something with some weight. The results were a stupid action flick with pretentiousness slathered over it.
Bug, on the other hand, is actually a good film—not in the least because of the source material. The play by Tracy Letts, which Mr. Letts adapted for the film, is strong, and it suits Friedkin’s style. Moreover, it returns Friedkin to the realm of making a cinematic theater piece—as he did with The Boys in the Band. Theater and Friedkin seem to be a good match. (I haven’t seen his 1997 TV film of Twelve Angry Men, so I can’t comment on that adaptation.) In both Bug and Boys, Friedkin knows exactly how to bring cinematic technique to bear on a largely one-set work. In Boys his constantly roving camera (combined with a brilliantly designed set) kept a movie that was essentially confined to an apartment moving. With Bug he does the same, and occasionally gooses the material with very 1970s—and very well chosen and well-timed—cutaways. Just as important, though, is the fact that Friedkin knows when to let the dialogue and the actors take over.
The results in both cases are unusually intense films. Bug is nothing if not intense. It is also intensely uncomfortable, and while I do not for a moment question the film’s quality, I am left wondering who its audience is. (My guess is that Lion’s Gate doesn’t know either, since they suicidally released it up against Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.) Mismarketed as a straight horror picture, it’s certainly not for the slasher crowd, who are going to be put off by its talkiness and general lack of action and body count. At the same time, it’s probably too much for the bulk of the art-house crowd, and it’s definitely not geared to find favor with the mainstream. Bug is—simply put—an unrelentingly unpleasant film.
The story is simple. Agnes White (Ashley Judd in an amazingly brave performance) lets a transient Gulf War veteran, Peter Evans (Michael Shannon repeating his stage role), whom she barely knows stay with her in her seedy motel apartment—after he quietly assures her (twice), “I’m not an axe murderer.” Well, he’s not, and he’s also much nicer than her psychotic ex-con husband (Harry Connick Jr.), but he’s also none too well wrapped. For that matter, neither is Agnes, a woman whose child disappeared years ago and whose only solace—apart from a lesbian best friend (Lynn Collins, The Merchant of Venice)—lies in wine and cocaine. The promise of any human interaction—and a buffer from her husband—is enough to make her slowly fall in line with Peter’s delusional belief that the government has infested his bloodstream with “parasitic aphids,” and ultimately to join in his dangerously deteriorating mental state.
In essence, the film watches as his madness passes to her and the pair retreat into destructive fantasy. (Occasionally, Bug seems like the nasty little brother of Anthony Harvey’s They Might Be Giants (1971).) Riveting and repellent—and leading to a shattering climax—this is powerful stuff, but if ever a movie deserved the caveat “not for everyone,” Bug certainly qualifies. Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use.