Thursday, June 07, 2007

In Theaters: Bug

Image from
After reviewing a past film by William Friedkin, I found it only appropriate to check out his current work. The important thing you should know about BUG is that it is nothing like what its trailer implies. Lions Gate Films, against its better judgement, has promoted this as a horror movie, with ads trying to evoke the atmosphere of movies like SAW or HOSTEL. This is not quite an outright lie, but it's damn close; the film, an adaptation of a stage play, is a character-driven psychological drama. Needless to say this has already pissed off the majority of people who went to see this in the first weekened, and the movie deserves better. Not a film for all tastes, BUG is an intense and claustrophobic look into the depths of paranoid delusion, and the precarious nature of sanity itself.

Ashley Judd is Agnes, a lonely woman living in one of those apartments that looks pretty much like a hotel room in a desert town in California. She keeps getting silent calls from nobody, probably her ex-boyfriend (Harry Connick, Jr.) who has just been released from prison. She works at a lesbian bar (and is bisexual herself), and through a co-worker meets Peter (Michael Shannon, who originated the role on stage), a nice enough, slightly unusual guy. He has, as he says, a tendency to see things that others don't and make connections that others don't. They become friends, and he spends the night on her couch (later floor), and eventually they make love. Soon after, he complains of bedbugs, and "finds" one, and though it's too small for us to see, Agnes eventually sees it too. He becomes fixated on the idea that the apartment is infested, and tries to leave her when he feels that it's somehow his fault, but she gets angry when she thinks he's abandoning her; not only does she have a worthless ex stalking her, but ten years ago her son disappeared in a supermarket and has never been seen since. When she starts to break down, he decides to stay, and together, they obsess about the bloodsucking aphids in their apartment and in their bodies. They develop sores, maybe from the insects, maybe from their own scratches. He tells her his secret, that in the army he was given injections that he now believes are the reason the infestation is taking place. Every so often a helicopter passes over.

I was not reminded of any of William Friedkin's other films while watching this; strangely enough, though, I was reminded of the recent work of David Cronenberg, of whom I'm a big fan. His SPIDER also took a very low-key, inward look at mental illness, and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE had a similar deliberate messiness. Friedkin, a director of considerable technical skill, is working on a smaller scale than usual, but his hand is apparent in the subtle way the stage action is translated to a filmic reality; the story can't be "opened up" too much, because claustrophobia and isolation are key elements of the characters' conditions, and I did notice one moment in the story which was obviously an act break, but the camera is pretty mobile throughout and a number of flashing microscopic images are used to unsettle things. If I didn’t know beforehand that this was a play, I probably wouldn’t have picked up on it.

He’s helped by a good script- Tracy Letts may be taking liberties both with the transmittability of mental illness and the time frame in which it takes place, but beyond those dramatic liberties, the film’s picture of mental illness is a realistic one. One of the more interesting things about it is how gradually Peter’s obsession rises to the surface; at first he seems very lightly eccentric in a way that everyone is, and even the insect theory seems reasonable for a short time. The way Agnes gets sucked into it out of loneliness raises some interesting questions about the fragility of sanity, and how easy it would be to slip away from it. The whole thing is rather ingeniously unsettling. The way the delusion itself is built, through connections and extrapolations and assumptions, has a terrifying sense of escalation to it.

Of course, I’m assuming that the two characters are, in fact, deluded. It’s the most obvious interpretation of events. But it’s not the only one, and a couple of lines and actions hint at alternate possibilities. In the end nothing is completely and absolutely certain. It might actually be reductive to view the movie in this light, given the seeming depths of its psychological layers, but neither Friedkin nor Letts press this angle too much, and it’s more an interesting alternative to a straightforward reading of events.

The two leads do an excellent job of playing into and feeding off of each other- you have to admire Judd’s willingness to inhabit a role at the expense of dignity, and both modulate their performances in a way that, while the climactic scenes are definitely over the top, makes them still believable. The performances are really the highlight of the movie, and if reception to the film hadn’t been so mixed I might predict Oscar nods. Oh, well.

BUG is a unique little picture, and perhaps it’s no surprise that Lions Gate chose the easiest (and most misleading) way of selling it. But hopefully the people who really would appreciate a film like this will find it sooner rather than later. I’m not sure if I’d call this Friedkin’s return to form, per se, but it’s a daring move for a director who up until now seemed to be marking time. There’s something electric in the atmosphere of this movie, a sense of genuine dread that shows a great talent is still at work.

Screenplay by Tracy Letts, based on his play
Directed by William Friedkin

Grade: A-

No comments: