by JAMES BRIGHAM
IT’S KINDA SCARY, THE SHAPE I’M IN
In case it isn’t yet readily apparent, allow me to spell something out for you: I love movies. I think there’s something sacred about the process of disappearing into the images being projected onto a giant theater screen – it’s an almost magical connection between the art and the viewer that can, at its best, cause me to momentarily forget my own physical presence and believe fully in an unfolding story writ large before my widespread eyes. I currently estimate that I saw over 30 films at the theater in 2006, so I’d imagine that I’ve earned my multiplex survival merit badge twice over by now. Taking this philosophy into account, what does it say about Bug when I reveal that it engrossed me in ways I’ve rarely encountered, but that I’m now feeling like spending less time and money at the cinema?
The explanation for these feelings lies partially in the origin of this dialogue driven paranoia piece. Bug is an adaptation of a play and was translated to the screen by its original playwright, Tracy Letts. Aiding in this revision is director William Friedkin (The French Connection, To Live and Die in L.A.) – one of the New Hollywood era’s former stars. Together, they have crafted an amazing picture that is unashamedly naturalistic and slow to burn. It’s beholden to its stage roots without being reverential to that medium. Let’s make this crystal clear; Bug is not just another filmed play, like Richard Linklater’s Tape or David Mamet’s Oleanna. It is wonderfully fleshed out with unsettling jump cuts, striking lighting, and swooping helicopter shots. All these cinematography and editing tricks masterfully combine with Letts’ web of words to evoke the claustrophobic notion of a larger outside presence whose walls are slowly closing in on a dingy Oklahoma motel.
As skillful as the adaptation is, it has reminded me that there is a wealth of options beyond the movie theatre available to the adventurous individual seeking passionately creative works: there are unread mass-market and niche novels littering my bookshelves; a host of playhouses dot my home city of Indianapolis; and the local symphony orchestra is a hop, skip, and a jump away. I am now more inspired to search out art, be it wholly original, supplemental, or otherwise indefinable. In my opinion, great art evokes the desire to feed the human spirit more of the same and Bug qualifies for inclusion in this category hands-down.
Mystery is one of the story’s principal selling points and it behooves you to watch this film with nothing more than a bare-minimum of preexisting story information floating in your brain. Bug is not content to simply be an insect horror movie or a blue-collar romance or an espionage thriller – instead it spins all of those genre conventions and labels together to make a drably colored tie-dye shirt of terror. It’s filmic apparel woven of feelings well-known across the national landscape: the paralyzing depression of loneliness, the righteous anger at governmental abuse, the human heart’s longing ache for a fellow psyche, etc.
This multi-layered tonal approach is paralleled by the title of the film as well. The so-called “bug” at first seems to refer to the movie’s reoccurring entomological aspect. Creepy-crawlers factor heavily into the advertising pitch and aphids, crickets, mantises, and maggots do indeed make several squirmy appearances, both blatant and covert. Insectophobes, be warned.
However, bug is also a common bit of slang for hidden listening / recording devices. Is the ramshackle motel room where waitress Agnes White (the superlative Ashley Judd) lives being monitored? By whom and to what end? Every random car that passes by in the night and every odd mechanical buzz begin to carry an air of menace as the days pass by.
The early parole of Agnes’ abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr., playing it charmingly sleazy), could also be seen as a bug: a flaw in the system of societal order. It’s surely an error of design when the law releases violent criminals back on the street to menace the innocent. The reoccurring appearance of Jerry bugs Agnes in more ways than one. He smacks her around, takes her cash, insults her friend, and is generally a nuisance of the highest order. Jerry’s presence also serves as an unwelcome reminder of a tragedy from their married past.
Rounding out this dense assembly of interpretations is the intriguing drifter, Peter (Michael Shannon), whose occasional bug-like spasms belie a deeper kindness and wisdom. Brought together by a chance encounter at the motel, Agnes and Peter develop a friendship that soon blossoms into a love affair – later it turns into something else. Agnes’ slow sweetness nicely compliments Peter’s learned oddity and this budding soul connection carves out a niche of safety away from their respective demons. When the insanity erupts later on, it’s all the more effectively conveyed because of the tender moments the two leads had so wonderfully created minutes before.
As was brought up earlier, Bug held me in rapt attention during a scene that I can only compare right now to key sequences from Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho and Takashi Miike’s Audition. The shudder of shocked disbelief at what occurs in Bug will stick with me for many moons – seldom have sound effects, acting chutzpah, and shadow combined so well to alarm me to such a degree. Watching Bug transpose the audience from the couple’s bedtime solace to a frenzied, bloody chaos is like having a Sunday drive to the pancake house interrupted by a flaming semi T-boning the side of your car.
The only thing stopping me from giving this movie my highest level of recommendation is a few brief moments of rambling monologue near the end that seem to be improvised excess. Still, the period is fleeting in comparison to the larger work and I’d personally rather watch masterful attempts at ad-libbing than rote declaration of mindless pap any day of the week. With this film, Friedkin has earned a new trophy to place on his directorial mantle, right next to his classic religious horror film, The Exorcist; and Letts’ writing has left me with a hankering to see what productions my city’s acting troupes are currently embroiled in. With any luck, I’ll be able to catch the next Bug before it infects the multiplex.
3 1/2 stars