Flesh and Bone (1993), wherein I opined on how underrated it is and more people should watch it/know of it. We all have those movies, those unsung ones that somehow fell through the cracks one way or another upon it’s initial release and as fans we feel the need to blabber on endlessly about them to make sure our point is made about how great they are. I know William Friedkin’s 2006 headfuck Bug isn’t nearly as anonymous as the aforementioned Flesh and Bone, but it’s still one of those films that, to me, deserves more recognition than it seems to get (come to think of it, Friedkin‘s 1990 genre offering The Guardian is another one of those films). While it did get a fair amount of respect from critics, and it’s lead actors were rightfully praised , it was also a very polarizing film, and still is. It’s one of those cases where it’s fans absolutely love it and do what I described above to anyone that will listen, but it’s also one of those cases where it’s detractors loathe everything about it, and endlessly trash it. I was drawn to Bug pretty much immediately after I saw a TV spot for it, and I wasn’t let down in the slightest. It was a breath of fresh air to me when I first saw it. It was totally fucked up which I obviously loved, but more than anything I can honestly say I hadn’t ever seen anything remotely like it before.
Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a lonely waitress who leads a pretty empty life. Living in a ratty motel room, she loves her booze and coke and is in constant fear of being harassed by her ex husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) who was recently released from prison. She’s also been receiving strange phone calls which she believes to be Jerry messing with her, and lost her son who disappeared some years ago. When her lone friend R.C. introduced her to Peter (Michael Shannon), and eccentric Army veteran turned drifter, the two find a common bond in their loneliness and quickly develop a relationship. Aside from the occasional unwanted visit from Jerry, things are going pretty good for the two, until Peter finds a bug (and aphid) in Agnes’ bed. Peter begrudgingly reveals to Agnes that he has in fact gone AWOL from the army, claiming to have been experimented on, and convinces Agnes that the motel room is infested. Soon Agnes is seeing bugs too, and begins to share Peter’s thoughts and fears of conspiracy theories, being implanted with bug egg sacks and being followed and tracked by satellite signals. Virtually shutting themselves off from the outside world, the two descend deeper and deeper into paranoia and full blown insanity.
I could have easily just said “Two people loose their shit in a motel room” and left it at that, but I felt the need to be a BIT more specific. Thank Pazuzu for William Friedkin. While he's never been the kind of filmmaker to cater to the wants of the major studio's, you really have applaud him for taking on a project so ballsy and against the mainstream like Bug, as I don’t think this wasn’t made with the intention of being a “hit” but if you’re like me and this does appeal to you, holy shit you’re in for a treat. I personally consider Bug to be one of the best films to come out this past decade. It’s a film that wears many hats, and they all fit. It’s pretty much unclassifiable, as it refuses to sit comfortably in one genre or another. There are horror elements without question, but it’s so much more than just a horror film. It deals with some sci-fi concepts, absolutely, but it’s defiantly not straightforward science fiction. Friedkin has called Bug a love story at heart, and that’s actually pretty accurate, as deranged as it is. Bug may be very visceral in parts, as there are scenes that are sure to make more than a few folks skin crawl, but it really shines in the psychology department, and questions will be lingering in your mind all throughout the film and long after it’s ended. Is Peter delusional? Did the bugs exist? Was he really experimented on? What about his tooth? What did Agnes really see under that microscope? Now, this is probably where you’ll tell me I’m the crazy one, of course they’re both out of their minds, but I disagree. Not everything in Bug is as clear cut as it seams, as Friedkin has a tendency to add things which more than likely will throw whatever interpretation you've made totally out of whack, which I'm sure was his intention, plus the final shot during the closing credits makes the events of the film even more ambiguous. Just another way to fuck with our heads one final time.
Bug was based on a stage play, and the majority of the action never leaves Agnes’ motel room. This obviously isn’t Friedkin’s first rodeo, and he makes master use of the limited settings, playing you much like Hitchcock did in one of his limited setting films (Rope in particular), and the film is so engrossing you won’t even notice that for the last 101 minutes you hardly left this one small area, and there are certain parts of the film where it feels as if your right there observing the entire thing. The motel room and it’s surroundings couldn’t have been anymore perfect. Out in the middle of nowhere in the Oklahoma desert, isolated from everything. The perfect spot to go crazy. The room itself is quite seedy looking, ideal for a character such as Agnes (more on that later), and there’s the um, “renovations” Peter makes to it later on in the film, you could almost say it becomes a character itself, plus I’m a total sucker for things like that, run down, lonely looking motels, rough desert landscapes, shit like that. Don’t know why, just always have been, so I was quickly attracted to the aesthetic the film put off. Anyway, if the films premise wasn’t already intense enough, the claustrophobic settings allow Friedkin to really jack up the paranoia, and as the film progresses and Agnes and Peter’s mental states deteriorate, the uneasy feeling is heightened tenfold. Then of course, there’s the films final set piece. Brilliantly minimal, if you ever thought tin foil and bug zappers wouldn’t make for good set design, think again. The use of the blue lights during those moments are more than effective and really show off how great an eye Friedkin has. There are other cool things Friedkin tosses in there to add even more mood, overhead helicopter shots of the motel to further the “government conspiracy” theme of the film, and the interjected shots of footage of actual bugs was cool looking as well.
You’ve heard of actors giving “brave” and “dedicated” performance, well Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon take those terms to an entirely new level, putting on the definition of a clinic. I’d be hard pressed to think of the last time I saw two performers literally, psychically hurl themselves into a role like these two did in this film. Judd brings life to Agnes and her fragility. She’s a very tragic figure, having gone through all the shit she has, and Judd brings forth that vulnerability. You get the feeling that she believes everything Peter says because she’s already very psychologically damaged, so starved for companionship she’s follow him anywhere, no matter how crazy the situation. Michael Shannon, who also starred in the play, has a very sketchy awkwardness about him. The first instant we meet Peter we defiantly know there’s something a bit off about him. Everything from his mannerisms to his speech, the guys a bit distant to say the least. Distant, yet Shannon has a very magnetic presence and you want to know more about him, despite the unpleasantness that might come along with it. Watching the two of them, from the back and fourths about bugs and conspiracies to the twitching they both start doing (Shannon in particular is very physical, I’ve heard say this film can been seen as a metaphor for meth addiction. Take it as you will) it can become almost uncomfortable at times, they’re that fucking good. The films unforgettable final moments where the two go absolutely batshit is really a sight to behold the way the two play off each other with a sort of manic energy, and the way Judd delivers her lines with such intensity (“I AM THE SUPER MOTHER BUG!”) should have won them both every award imaginable. Harry Connick Jr. deserves a special mention for playing one of the biggest assholes in cinematic history, yet he’s always fun when he’s on screen. His interactions with Shannon are always entertaining.
Admittedly, Bug does jump the gun just a tad when it comes to the aforementioned finale. An extra 10 or so minutes would have been appreciated, just to make Agnes and Peter’s transition to full blown madness a bit more gradual. As it stands, it does comes off as a wee bit rushed. I haven’t seen the play so I have no idea if it plays out the same way as the film or if the timing of events were altered for the screen. That not withstanding, the sheer impact of the finale more than makes up for that. Bug most certainly isn’t for everybody. When it premiered at Cannes there were reports of people who for one reason or another couldn’t take it and got up and walked out. Reminds me of another Friedkin flick where there were numerous reports of people doing the same thing when it played in theatres. I always forget the name of that one. Something to do with working out I think. Even if you don’t like Bug, you have to at least admire it’s originality (and if you’ve ever read any of the shit I scribble on here you know how I feel about original, creative films), outright intensity, and the way Judd and Shannon go at it with reckless abandon. Even people who hated the film had to admit how amazing the two were. If there were more directors like Friedkin and actors like Judd and Shannon who took chances with films like this, I’d probably make it to the theatre more often than I do (which isn’t often). I can’t recommend Bug highly enough.