Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
May 2007

Buggin' out

The bottom falls out of Friedkin's paranoid thriller, 'Bug'

Lionsgate Films
Director: William Friedkin
Screenplay: Tracy Letts, based on his play
Starring:Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins and Brian F. O'Byrne
Rated R / 1 hour, 42 minutes
Opened May 25, 2007
(out of four)

It could be government experiments, it could be hallucinogenic drugs, it could be paranoid schizophrenia ... whatever the explanation, new lovers Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon) have a bug problem on their hands. We, the audience, can't see these bugs, they're so tiny - but Agnes and Peter insist that they're there. All over their bodies. Reproducing underneath their skin. Infesting their entire apartment.

This is despite the fact that there weren't any bugs before Agnes met Peter, by chance, at a bar one night. And despite the fact that no one else - not her best friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) nor her menacing ex-husband, Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), just released from prison - can see the bugs, or feel them, anywhere. What we do see is the cuts, bites and scratches all over Agnes and Peter's bodies. And the couple's rapid descent into a state of hyper-paranoia.

William Friedkin's Bug, based on Tracy Letts' well-regarded stage play, starts out as an eerie exercise in suggestive fear before unsuccessfully transitioning into full-blown psychological horror. Taking place almost entirely in a small, shabby apartment (which looks like more like a converted motel room than an actual residence), sets up an uneasy tension between two strangers who feel a connection without ever really knowing or understanding each other. She's an aging barfly with a coke habit. He's an anonymous stranger who someone's been looking for. He claims he left the army after being subjected to human-tested scientific experiments ... this, he says, explains the bugs that have suddenly infested his and Agnes' dwelling.

When we meet Peter, he's a bit of an odd-ball, but nothing if not mild-mannered. But it's not long before he's in hysterics, rambling half-coherently about government conspiracy, mind control. He insists that the U.S. military tried to brainwash him, and others, into becoming trained killing machines, a la The Manchurian Candidate.

The bugs, Peter explains, are merely an extension of this mind control, not to mention a handy tracking device. And so even though Agnes at first can't see the bugs at all, it doesn't take Peter long to convince her that they're all over the place ... and she spirals into insanity just as quickly as he did.

R.C. insists that Peter is merely hallucinating it all, and tries to convince Agnes of the same thing. In retort, Peter delivers the film's best line: "As for your contention that there are no bugs - I disagree."

Friedkin does well to not give us any clear answers. He doesn't show us anything through either Agnes or Peter's eyes - he simply lets them tell us what they think they see, or think they know, and we have to take it at face value. When Peter takes samples of his blood to see if there are any bugs in it, we don't see under the microscope. When he manually yanks out his back tooth and claims to find an eggsac, we don't see it. We experience their delusion and paranoia intimately, but from an outsider's point of view. And for a while, the film creates an intense psychological tension as Agnes and Peter first begin to come apart at the hinges.

But when the script raises the ante, there's not nearly enough to support the terror and fear we're meant to be experiencing. Bug tries to take a look at the paranoiac effects of an over-controlled, voyeuristic post-9/11 America, but fails to effectively tap into those fears. All of Peter's conspiratorial ramblings are just that - ramblings. The issues the film brings up are paid lip service rather than being examined with any real conviction.

Effective psycho-thrillers often try to explore the real-world fears of the world or generation in which they live, in surreal or scary ways. Take the aforementioned John Frankenheimer classic The Manchurian Candidate. Or Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse. Even Hitchcock's Lifeboat.

In the case of Bug, the higher the stakes are raised, the more the suspense degenerates. By the end, all we're watching is a couple of delusional psychotics descend into madness. The reasons why can simply be forgotten.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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