"I am the super mother bug!" -- Bug
In many ways, Bug may represent the apex of Ashley Judd's curious career. She's always been something of a green-screen actress without the green-screen, relying on some kind of method to dig deep and come up with seemingly heartfelt, emotive performances in routine thrillers where the surroundings don't warrant that kind of effort. (I'm looking at you, Kiss the Girls.) Judd's motivation is always in her head, which makes her naturally primed to take on a character like Bug's Agnes White, a lonely, small-town waitress who was frozen inside her own emotional headspace years ago, when her young son disappeared out of a grocery cart. She now spends her days being lusted after by the lesbians at a honky-tonk dive where she works, doing drugs, counting up crumpled dollar bills and bracing herself for the unwanted return of her ex-con ex, who has more than one screw loose. "You tried to kill me," she reminds him when he finally washes up on her doorstep. "That was a rough one, yeah," he replies, without trying to be funny.
I've seen the same marketing you have, and I'm not going to comment on whether, at some point during the film, a swarm of giant bugs may come to attack poor Agnes. I will suggest, however, that deserved Oscar nominations for Judd and director William Friedkin may be thwarted by an attempt to make this film sound like it belongs on the same shelf as Blade: Trinity and Silent Hill. Bug is a horror film, for sure -- one that will leave you bug-eyed -- but not one that pins its hopes on special effects. Instead, it uses a horrific set-up to explore some nimble issues, like how emotional vulnerability can weaken you, impair your judgment and make you not only accept the poor logic of others, but actually become a participant in their delusions. If you have nothing in your life, will you grab onto anything? Sociologists have been asking a variant of that question forever, and it's refreshing to see a movie taking a whack at it, with some success.
The catalyst, the host, whatever you want to call it, comes to the film in the form of Peter, a character portrayed by Michael Shannon, who was memorable as the anti-Tim McVeigh in Oliver Stone's sometimes intriguing but mostly lackluster World Trade Center. Peter is a drifter with a quasi-military past who drifts into Agnes's life one night and doesn't seem to ever leave. Even when a friend or the crazy ex shows up during the film to torment Agnes, Peter sort of hovers in the background, like a piece of furniture, and waits until they're alone again. To say that Peter is uncomfortable in his own skin would be a grave understatement, and I'm not just thinking of the moment when he back-flips onto a bed in agony, clawing at the aphids he believes are burrowing under his skin. I'm thinking mostly of his "too many machines" speech, in which he talks about being able to feel the constantly increasing number of machines, processors, criss-crossing signals and what-not that clutter the environment.
Peter has the verbal incontinence of a paranoid schizophrenic and he holds onto the walls as he walks back and forth, which is never a good sign, but a toxic mix of severe loneliness, the need for a drug buddy and perhaps some kind of twisted need to still be a mother-figure prevents Agnes from cutting loose of him, and the two end up falling into a night of primordial sex, which is filmed by Friedkin as though from the point of view of a germaphobe. The focus is pointedly microscopic, concerned with the sweat and the routine, animalistic function of it all, with no regard for anything like emotion or pleasure. In this and other scenes throughout the film, Friedkin's directing choices are fresh and interesting while also remaining subtle. He doesn't try to make the camera a third person inside the small trailer where the two characters are holed-up -- that would be a distracting mistake. Instead, he delicately keeps out of the way as Judd and Shannon begin to crash into each other at dangerous speeds.
The script, which is an adaptation of the play by Tracy Letts, sometimes feels less adapted and more like a performance of the play being mounted, which can be off-putting. At a recent press conference for the film, Friedkin made it clear that the writing was not something he made any attempt to bend to his personal voice, and that definitely comes across from time to time, but its mostly balanced out by the high-octane acting, which slaps us full in the face whenever our attention starts to slip. Judd and Shannon make these roles their own in every possible way, so minor quibbles all in all for the film. What Friedkin has delivered here is an effective and engaging little nightmare story, as unsettling in its own way as some of the most disturbing moments in The Exorcist. It's a film about what can happen to us when we want to jump out of our skin, but can't. Whether the bugs or real, or whether they are imaginary, I wouldn't suggest showing up at the theater without a bottle of Raid and a mosquito hat.
*Also check out Jette's review of the film.