Bug (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Calling Bug a "horror" film may be misleading. Although the movie includes some of the trappings genre fans would expect - including a moment of gore that will cause some viewers to turn away from the screen - it's more of a psychological drama. It's also very strange, although I suppose that's only to be expected considering that the film is adapted from a play about two characters who spend most of their time inside a motel room feeding off each other's paranoid delusions (not the most delectable entrée). Bug is creepy and hard to dismiss, but it's not a lot of fun and its weaknesses leave a bitter aftertaste.

Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a straight bartender at a lesbian hang-out, whose tragic past and uncertain future leave her with few friends an no lovers. She spends her non-working hours in the motel room she calls home, never going to parties or fraternizing with anyone except her buddy, R.C. (Lynn Collins). She sits in the dimly lit place, drinking and nursing the wound of a loss that still stings after so many years. To make matters worse, her abusive ex, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), has just gotten out of prison and someone is calling her repeatedly but not saying anything when she answers the phone.

One night, R.C. stops by on the way to a party. With her is Peter (Michael Shannon), a shy sort of guy who piques Agnes' interest. The two end up spending the night together - with him on the floor and her in the bed. Peter is a strange man - he's not interested in sex, he claims to have an almost supernatural ability to read people, and he's on the run from something or someone. Agnes is just thankful to have found someone to call a friend, but Peter's ability to distinguish fact from fantasy is in question. He starts observing bugs everywhere and, although Agnes doesn't see them at first, she goes along with him and is soon convinced that the nearly microscopic insects have infected not only her motel room but her very body.

Bug is a portrait of two borderline schizophrenics. It's a love story featuring two lonely paranoid delusionals who afflict each other with their troubles. They concoct wild conspiracy theories to explain the bugs - everything from aliens to government cover-ups and secret medical experiments. Their situation becomes characterized by an "us against the world" mentality as they grow convinced that everyone else is involved or connected. When a psychologist stops by to visit Peter, he is viewed as a spy, and is not to be trusted.

The movie, directed by William Friedkin (whose previous credits include The Exorcist and The French Connection), never tries to convince us that Agnes and Peter's delusions might be real - that this could be the story of two unfortunates caught in the grip of an unethical experiment. It's clear from the beginning that the characters are on the edge and it takes only the poisonous interaction of one with the other to push them over. The acting is feverish and high-strung - exactly what you would expect from two deeply troubled people caught in a situation where there's no outside force to counter their growing insanity.

Sight and sound are used to emphasize the madness. We hear the noise of an airplane as the camera zooms in on a spinning ceiling fan. For the most part, the movie takes place within the confines of the motel room, which grows increasingly claustrophobic, especially once the walls are papered with aluminum foil and the lights are replaced by the eerie blue glow of insect repellant bulbs. Friedkin uses simple tricks to increase the audience's discomfort level.

There's no doubt that Bug is intense. It's a fairly nightmarish experience, complete with a scene of self-administered dental care that squeamish viewers will not be able to endure. (Turn away when the pliers come out.) Yet, for all that the movie is harrowing, it's not entirely successful. After a well-constructed first act, the story becomes a little tiresome and repetitive and the characters, who are will defined to begin with, stray ever closer to the edge of overwrought one-dimensionality. There's something to be said for a movie that is this far from the mainstream; it is not uninteresting. However, the size of the audience that will take away something meaningful from Bug is small. The movie is as difficult to like as it is to turn away from.

Bug (United States, 2006)

Director: William Friedkin
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr
Screenplay: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Cinematography: Michael Grady
Music: Brian Tyler
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2007-05-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1