If his resumé is any evidence, it can’t be very nice living in William Friedkin’s head. Less uncomfortable, perhaps, during that brief period in the ‘70s when he married his murky obsessions with strong material. Since the ‘80s his script choices have been dependably erratic, but the odd commercial success (Rules of Engagement) has kept him working. His last couple of films have exemplified his strange fascinations, as characters in tawdry circumstances spiral off into crazed, over-cooked, theatricality.
One might argue that this is appropriate, as both Bug and Killer Joe are adapted from plays. But the effect on this viewer is to ultimately disengage from the story. Maybe the hyperbolic climaxes Friedkin thunders towards are designed to reveal that, actually, he’s really making comedies. I can see that Killer Joe’s finale could be construed that way, except that it’s the kind of queasy humour that requires one to see the funny side of being suspended upside down in a brimming cesspit. Friedkin just isn’t a funny guy; he’s much to literal to translate humour or nuance from the page. Why bother when repeatedly bludgeoning the same spot over 90 minutes will do? As a result, the cumulative effect of Bug is wearying rather than compelling or provocative.
Lonely Agnes (Ashley Judd) lives in the misleadingly-named Rustic Motel. She waitresses at a lesbian bar and consumes assorted narcotics with her co-worker R.C. (John Carter’s Lynne Collins). R.C. introduces Agnes to Peter (Michael Shannon), a disturbed veteran, and a tentative but increasingly claustrophobic relationship begins between the two of them. Meanwhile, Agnes’ abusive ex (Harry Connick Jr.) has been release from prison.
There’s little need to open out the play from its single location, and Friedkin sensibly restricts himself accordingly. In contrast, he leaves little to the imagination as the inclusive paranoia and isolation of Agnes and Peter grow. One can imagine how much of this would have been based solely on the performances as a stage play, as it’s all about inviting an audience to identify with the leads’ delusional states (Peter, in particular, is a part that invites absurd grandstanding, and the never-reticent Shannon bites the head off the role, then proceeds to heave bloody chunks of it over the screen throughout – sometimes literally). When Peter hears helicopters we don’t just hear helicopters too, the lighting changes accordingly; they’re outside, dammit!
This might work if there was ever any Polanski-esque uncertainty over whether the demons in Peter’s mind were that alone, but casting bug-eyed Shannon ensures there’s no chance. You know Peter will be climbing the walls before long within a minute of his introduction. Which is a shame, as there’s legitimate reason for Peter to be concerned over untoward military experimentation with his health and wellbeing (Gulf War Syndrome, etc). As it is, Peter is dismissed as a paranoid schizophrenic conspiracy nut, obsessed with the idea that he has been infected with tiny bugs and eager to fold every grand scheme he can think of into his fantasy.
Friedkin is similarly unsubtle with Agnes, highlighting her addiction issues early on (be it coke, crack or pot) so it’s very clear where her shifting lines of reality come from. Judd is very good, an underrated actress generally, but as the performers are pitched into the antic final act there is no place to go but OTT. The resulting sensation is one of watching little more than a misjudged amateur dramatics production.
I’m not sure much could have been done to prevent this without doing serious work on the structure of the piece. Certainly, the late-stage appearance of Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O’Byrne) does a little to offset the increasingly one-note crescendo of tone. But going any further in that direction would probably require a Jacob’s Ladder-esque shift in emphasis. There are a couple of shots on the end credits that appear designed to either provide answers (Agnes’ missing child) or add ambiguity (the fate of Dr. Sweet), but by that point you’re past caring.
I’ve seen it suggested that the film is too sophisticated for a mainstream audience. I’d argue that the reverse is true. I don’t think it’s the cup of tea of a wider crowd anyway, but Bug is relentlessly unsophisticated. It takes a hammer to crack a nut (or a bug) and ends up a victim to its own relentless histrionics.