Skip to main content

I am the Super Mother Bug!


Bug
(2006)

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.

**1/2

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

What you do is very baller. You're very anarchist.

Lady Bird (2017)
(SPOILERS) You can see the Noah Baumbach influence on Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, with whom she collaborated on Frances Ha; an intimate, lo-fi, post-Woody Allen (as in, post-feted, respected Woody Allen) dramedy canvas that has traditionally been the New Yorker’s milieu. But as an adopted, spiritual New Yorker, I suspect Gerwig honourably qualifies, even as Lady Bird is a love letter/ nostalgia trip to her home city of Sacramento.

You’re a staring Stanley!

The Sixth Sense (1999)
(SPOILERS) It has usually been a shrewd move for the Academy to ensure there’s at least one big hit among its Best Picture Oscar nominees. At least, until the era of ever-plummeting ratings; not only do the studios get to congratulate themselves for their own profligacy (often, but not always, the big hits are also the costliest productions), but the audience also has something to identify with and possibly root for. Plus, it evidences that the ceremony isn’t just about populism-shunning snobbery. The Sixth Sense provided Oscar’s supernatural bookend to a decade – albeit, The Green Mile also has a stake in this – that opened with Ghost while representing the kind of deliberate, skilfully-honed genre fare there was no shame in recognising. Plus, it had a twist. Everyone loves a twist.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).