Synopsis: A lonely waitress with a tragic past, Agnes rooms in a run-down motel, living in fear of her abusive ex-husband. But when Agnes begins romance with Peter, an eccentric drifter, she starts to feel hopeful again – until the first bugs arrive…
eyelights: Ashley Judd. Michael Shannon. its basic plot.
eyesores: its editing.
“I pick up on things.”
How the mighty have fallen: once one of Hollywood’s big shots, thanks to ‘The French Connection’ and ‘The Exorcist‘, director William Friedkin has since lost much of his box office draw. But, while it’s true that he’s made a few misfires (‘Jade‘ comes to mind), he’s also done some good work along the way too (case-in-point his remake of ’12 Angry Men’).
But he never got his mojo back.
Friedkin’s ‘Bug’ is a picture that few noticed upon its release in 2007, though it opened in over 1500 cinemas. Programmed against ‘Pirates of the Caribbean 3’, ‘Shrek 3’ and ‘Spider-Man 3’, it couldn’t muster a better position than 4th at the box office. It remade its extremely low production costs, but two weeks later it remained in little more than 300 cinemas.
And yet, ‘Bug’ is a better picture than you’d think. Though it doesn’t find Friedkin at the height of his powers (more on that later), it still offers a solid script, a couple of very strong performances and a growing sense of foreboding that culminates in a frenzy rarely seen on screen. At a bare minimum, it has the ability to grab hold of its audience’s attention.
Based on Tracy Letts’ award-winning play, the picture tells the story of Agnes, a down-and-out waitress who is holed up in an Oklahoma motel. Lonely and afraid of her ex, who is due to be released from prison, she befriends an itinerant man that her best friend picks up at the bar. Soon he moves in and she discovers that his apparent idiosyncrasies run deeper.
The picture is creepy on many levels. First, there’s the pervasive presence of Jerry, Agnes’ ex: even when he’s not on screen, the phone reminds us that he’s just a harassment away. Then there’s the disquieting presence of Michael Shannon as Peter, who seems nice, but is rather awkward. And then there’s Peter’s intense paranoia, which infects Agnes like a virus.
The pair take us into a madness that is difficult to explain: as Peter’s true colours show and, already destabilized by Jerry’s presence, Agnes succumbs to his will, and the pair spiral out of control, fueling each other’s illness. Isolating themselves from the outside world, they become caught up in a dissonant reality that is their own self-perpetuating creation.
The problem is that the audience can sometimes have a difficult time accepting the pair’s beliefs or actions; by not being in their heads, and not knowing the connections that they make, it’s difficult to follow and believe what they are doing. But insanity is insidious that way: it can make complete sense to the afflicted, even though it can’t be justified objectively.
Of course, that’s what makes ‘Bug’ even scarier, in some fashion: the inexplicable is often times far scarier than that which can be measured, quantified, dissected and analyzed. Here, we don’t know what’s driving these people and we certainly don’t know where this ride is going to take them. It could be anywhere. Thus the picture plays on our own paranoia.
Its key strength: its ability to lock the audience in that room with Agnes and Peter.
Where it fails, unfortunately, is in some of the storytelling: it’s never abundantly clear how much time has slipped by (the passage of time is expressed in slow pans of the hotel – which are awkwardly cut together, sometimes from different takes), so it’s hard to fathom how rapidly Agnes degenerates. It felt like a lazy attempt to glue together the play’s acts.
Of course, having not seen or read the play (which was adapted to the screen by Letts himself), this is an assumption.
The performances are terrific, though, but you can’t truly buy into them because Friedkin leaves big gaps in the character arcs. Ashley Judd gives it her all, but you’d want to see the gradual transitions in Agnes’ behaviour. As for Michael Shannon, he brings to the part a skin-crawling mix of Vince Vaughan and Joaquim Phoenix, making Peter stiff and alien.
Peter’s disintegration was much more fluid but, by not understanding why Agnes would stand by him and let herself be pulled into his madness, it’s easy to be incredulous – and even more so when the government agent arrives to find their motel-room foil-covered and begins to take hits of their drugs. By that point, it’s like having stepped into another movie.
At that point, it felt like a David Lynch movie made by a self-indulgent hack.
It simply didn’t make any sense.
Still, ‘Bug’ packs enough of a punch that it stays with you well after it’s over; I know I’m going to remember this movie for a while. Will I want to see it again? Maybe someday, but certainly not in the near future: I’d have to have no reservations in order to lock myself in that room with Agnes and Peter again, in order to let the film’s events get under my skin.
Unfortunately, something always nagged at me… bugged me.
Date of viewing: October 17, 2016