On my way out of William Friedkin
's latest Bug, I overheard a gentleman in the lobby say to his companion that he hopes everyone involved in the picture fires their agents. The movie could mean at least a long stint in the doghouse for its two leads, Ashley Judd
and Michael Shannon
. It's regrettable, because the actors are clearly giving all they've got and then some to a project that, ultimately, amounts to a staggering miscalculation. As for Friedkin, I'm guessing he'll stay put for a few years before returning with another questionable clunker.
Working from Tracy Letts' adaptation of his own play, Friedkin gives us a five-character chamber piece, set in a downtrodden motel room out in the sticks. Bi-curious basket case Agnes (Judd) works as a waitress in a redneck bar by night, and shacks up in a motel room, in a pot-, coke-, and booze-induced stupor by day. It's her meager defense against the onslaught of just-paroled ex-husband Jerry (a beefed-up and amusing Harry Connick Jr.
), who drops by to inflict verbal and physical abuse, not to mention dredging up memories of her long-lost son. The woman's only respite is her girlfriend, R.C. (Lynn Collins
), a fellow waitress who's a tad too freewheeling for the reserved Agnes. Twitched-out and fragile, she meets her perfect match in the taciturn Peter (Shannon), a war veteran who harbors traumas of his own. Soon after they hook up, Peter becomes increasingly convinced that his body's been colonized by bugs -- bugs laying eggs and traveling up and down his bloodstream. Peter claims to be an escapee from a government medical lab where he was the subject of nefarious tests. He suspects the bugs were bio-engineered by the government to be tools for mind control. Before you know it, Bug has become a full-blown freak show, fueled by military-industrial conspiracies, and styled after Macbeth as the paranoid Peter and the needy Agnes become obsessive partners in mutual destruction. Article continues below
Any mooring to logic becomes tenuous as Friedkin and Letts belabor their picture with scene after scene of paranoid rants and tantrums. Peter and Agnes wallpaper their room with tin foil, outfit it with anti-bug lamps, and convert it into a bunker against the government invasion, in their minds surely imminent. A visit by Peter's doctor (an oily Brian F. O'Byrne
) whose claim to want to help amounts to zilch because, by now, we're too alienated by Bug and its inhabitants to invest any more of ourselves.
Face it, folks: watching a pair of lunatics on a hell-bound descent for a hundred minutes is neither fun nor instructive. Characters so convinced of their delusions that they lack the capacity to look outside them or question them amount to fanatics, and, left to themselves, fanatics are tedious agents of narrative. We know where they're going -- it's a bumpy one-way road that dead-ends in death. What's worse, we suspect everything they say, think, or feel along their miserable way because, you know, they're insane.
By the end of this wretched paranoid melodrama, we're left with a host of feelings, all unintended by the filmmakers: bafflement, embarrassment, anger, and back to bafflement. Bug breaks essential laws of storytelling and character development but, to give credit where it's due, Friedkin keeps us off-kilter with images of pumping bloodstreams, bugs, and ceiling fans meant to evoke the blades of army choppers, heard intermittently on the soundtrack. But stylistic choices are irrelevant in the midst of Bug's larger hive of problems. Whether Judd and Shannon fire their agents is small consolation to those of us in the audience who wanted only to reach into the screen, and do to the movie's characters what they eventually do to themselves. If only to put us out of their misery.