|In the first few minutes of Bug, William Friedkin's 2006 thriller that is only now getting a stateside release, Friedkin references two other well-known cinematic opening scenes – an incessant, audibly exaggerated phone ringing recalls Once Upon a Time in America, while a shot of a whirling ceiling fan where we hear the "whup-whup" sound of helicopter blades is an unmistakable nod to Apocalypse Now. These obvious shout-outs to fellow masters Leone and Coppola are (perhaps) a signal that Friedkin, after years of churning out Hollywood fodder, is attempting to pick up the auteurist reins he let go of in 1980 after the controversial (and underappreciated) Cruising.|
Based on Tracy Letts' play of the same name (he also penned the screenplay), Bug is a psychological thriller set in an Oklahoma motel located (literally) in the middle of nowhere. Ashley Judd (finally rediscovering her acting chops) plays Agnes, a white-trash, coked-up alcoholic attempting to recover from the disappearance of her child (abducted from a supermarket), and a dangerous relationship with the violent Jerry (an unrecognizable Harry Connick, Jr.). Her lesbian, single-mom friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) introduces her to a drifter named Peter (Michael Shannon, star of the magnificent Shotgun Stories), a somewhat-intense but seemingly safe individual who is simply looking for a friend. Lonely, and frightened by the sudden reappearance of her psychotic ex, Agnes invites Peter into her squalid motel room, where the two slowly develop an awkward relationship. Then the bugs begin to appear...
What follows is something of a paranoiac pas de deux, as Peter slips deeper and deeper into madness, creating a grand meta-narrative conspiracy theory that connects Desert Storm, the US government, Jim Jones, Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, to name but a few. As the film's tagline says, paranoia is contagious, and soon Agnes is tying her own grief and suffering into Peter's deluded fantasies, for so desperate is she to find meaning to her misery. It's a slow burn, but the film steadily builds with ever-increasing intensity, culminating in a frenetic third act far removed from the languid, almost dreamy pace of film's first half.
As Richard Linklater demonstrated with Tape, it is possible to mount a successful drama within the confines of a motel room, though unlike the DIY aesthetic of Linklater's piece, Friedkin applies a remarkably jarring visual style, and matching sound design, that succeeds in enhancing the tension and capturing the paranoid gaze. Though not as severe as Gaspar Noé's gunshot punctuations in I Stand Alone, this is Friedkin's greatest use of sound since The Exorcist.
After fifteen or so years of phoned-in efforts such as Blue Chips, The Hunted, and Rules of Engagement, it's truly wonderful to see Friedkin as auteur once again, taking risks and approaching the material with the same kind of daring and originality that informed his earlier works (i.e., everything pre-1980). Its closest relative in the director's oeuvre is The Birthday Party, his 1968 rendition of the Harold Pinter play, which like Bug, places its characters in an equally claustrophobic setting with mounting tension.
Though there's much to admire in both the filmmaking and the performances Friedkin coaxes out of his cast (particularly Judd, who hasn't been nearly this good since Ruby in Paradise), Bug falls just a few feet short of hitting its mark, though the fault might lie in the source material, which, given its subject matter, simply can't work as well on screen. Successful buy-in of the folie à deux that the play is predicated upon requires a tearing down of that fourth wall – we need to be there in the room with Agnes and Peter, and the inevitable distance created by watching it on screen leaves us as mere observers, ultimately reducing the impact the playwright intended.
Lionsgate is marketing Bug as a straight-up horror film (vide the trailer here), and targeting a more mainstream audience. (I've heard the film will be preceded by a teaser of the first seven minutes of Hostel II. There's one way to get assess in seats.) However, fellow cinephiles, don't allow the ad campaign to dissuade you. Bug has far more in common with Cronenberg or Polanski than Eli Roth. It might not be another Sorcerer (to my mind, his real masterpiece), but even Friedkin in a flawed return to form is an opportunity that should not be missed.