Ashley Judd as Agnes White
Michael Shannon as Peter Evans
Harry Connick Jr. as Jerry Goss
Lynn Collins as R.C.
Brian F. O’Byrne as Dr. Sweet
Directed by William Friedkin
Despite strong performances from a solid cast, Friedkin’s psychotic thriller turns into an excruciating affair, like a bad drug trip that never really rises above its off-Broadway roots.
Cocktail waitress Agnes White (Ashley Judd) has been holed-up in a seedy motel, hiding from her ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) who has just been released on parole from jail, when she meets Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a seemingly nice Southern boy who she becomes entangled with, only to be dragged into his paranoid conspiracy theories about being the subject of a government experiment involving bugs.
Staying away from the commercials and advertisement for “Bug,” the latest movie from director William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”, “The French Connection”), may be the only way to truly enjoy it for what it is. After all, it’s being touted as this “disturbing horror film,” which really isn’t the case. There are none of the scares or chills that can normally be found in conventional horror, and it’s only scary in the sense that there are people out there who really believe that something like this is possible. In fact, without realizing that this movie was adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stageplay, I watched the movie thinking that I was watching a pretentious off-Broadway full of meaningless blathering. Friedkin is a strong enough filmmaker to do visually interesting things with the film’s difficult subject matter, but it would be so much easier to appreciate it if one doesn’t go in thinking that it’s horror.
Essentially, this is the story of a troubled woman (Judd’s character) whose life spirals further out of control when she gets involved with the wrong guy. Most of the movie involves Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in a seedy motel room spouting philosophical thoughts about the world, but after they have sex, things start to begin strange, as he becomes obsessed with these unseen bugs he’s convinced are living inside his body, planted there by the government during bizarre experiments. He quickly convinces Agnes that they’ve populated her body, too. If you didn’t know the plot beforehand, it might seem like something from out of left field, and it’s never really explained why they’re suddenly obsessed with these bugs, as it leads to all sorts of yelling, crying and psychotic babbling that’s only mildly entertaining because it’s so bizarre.
There are a few interesting thoughts in “Bug” about our government and the world around us, and it’s somewhat fun to watch the two leads physically deteriorate as they do whatever it takes to get the bugs out of their system, but things start to get more and more insane and outlandish as things go on. Very soon, the entire motel room is covered from floor to ceiling with aluminum foil to prevent the government from reading their minds, and when a doctor shows up claiming that Pete is an escaped mental patient (no, really?), he’s taken care of in short order.
Despite all the weirdness, the minimal cast does a decent job, Ashley Judd’s dramatic performance moves her one step forward on the daring path she took in “Come Early Morning.” As things get crazier, it’s hard not to laugh at some of her ridiculous utterances though, culminating in a ranting monologue that’s as ridiculous as Julianne Moore’s ten-minute diatribe in “Freedomland.” Michael Shannon recreates the role he originated for the stageplay, starting the movie rather sheepishly and unassuming with a heavy Southern drawl and intensifying his performance as we begin to see how crazy he really is. By comparison Harry Connick Jr. as her abusive ex-husband comes off as being rather sympathetic, while Brian F. O’Byrne (he played the priest in Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”) delivers a fine turn as Pete’s doctor.
We never find out if this bug conspiracy theory premise is real or something in their own warped imaginations, nor do we find out why they all of a sudden start behaving so oddly. When the move abruptly ends in the most extreme way possible, you’re likely to be left with way too many questions, such as “What did I just watch?” and “Why would I ever want to watch it?”
With those kinds of questions being raised, “Bug” is likely to appeal only to the staunchest of avant-garde film lovers, because it’s pretty out there in terms of cinematic storytelling. Maybe there’s more to this rambling story about psychos in love than I’m seeing, but with the number of crazies I see riding the New York subway system daily, one might understand why I don’t see the appeal of sitting through a movie about them. Still, the biggest disservice to what is essentially an intense character drama is the deception that it’s some sort of horror movie, since it doesn’t offer any of the elements that horror fans will be expecting.