Sunday, October 9, 2011

Halloween Short-Cut # 3: "Bug" by David Pretty

Hello, Friedkin Freaks!

Right out of the gate, I'd have to characterize Bug as a brave failure.  I thought the whole thing seemed kinda "stagey" until I found out that it was based on a play by Tracy Letts.  Now, that's not to say that there haven't been plenty of plays successfully adapted into films, but works such as Amadeus and A Man For All Seasons had plenty of scene changes and visual variety to sustain a cinematic interpretation.

Bug, on the other hand, keeps the story contained within the confines of a depressing, flea-bitten hotel room.  Slowly it wears the viewer down until it decides to reward those brave few souls with a good, hard kick to the accouterments.

Before I move on to the process of dissection, here's the film's appropriately bizarro trailer:

The run time is mercifully short considering how relentlessly bleak and oppressive it becomes.   Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress who's shacked up alone in a crummy run-down motel in a small Oklahoma town.  We soon come to learn that she's recovering from some major trauma in her life: namely the disappearance of her young son Lloyd and some very abusive treatment at the hands of her anger-prone ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.).

She has a nominal relationship with a co-worker named R.C. and, as the film begins, we witness their sad approximation of a social gathering.  Along for the ride is a stranger whom R.C introduces to Agnes as Peter (Michael Shannon).  He's mild-mannered, quietly assertive and after R.C. leaves he slowly begins to ingratiate himself to both Agnes and the viewer as he opens up about his past and shares his personal thoughts.

She offers him the couch to stay overnight since he's "kind of living in-between places" at the moment.  The next morning Jerry shows up uninvited, slaps Agnes around, absconds with her tip money and then threatens to come back.  When Peter sees her condition,  he begins to comfort her and ask questions about hr past.  Vulnerable and unwilling to be left alone, Agnes invites Peter to bed.

Almost immediately things go from slightly off-kilter to downright weird.  Like David Lynch weird.  Peter wakes up in the middle of the night convinced that aphids are crawling all over the bed.  As viewers, we can't see anything despite Peter's assertions.  He soon confesses that he's AWOL from the U.S. military who were doing strange tests on him.  He claims that they infected him with something that may or may not have been passed on to Agnes when they had sex.

At first she doesn't believe him, but in her desperate desire to hold onto him, Agnes slowly starts to believe Jerry's paranoid theories.

Then things get CLASS-5/Andy Dick bizarre.  

Low flying helicopters shake their room, lighting it up with searchlights as if fulfilling Peter's most irrational fears.  He begins testing his blood for parasites and decorating the room with fly paper and bug lamps.  Jerry re-appears and now seems distressingly normal in comparison.  The pair begin to self-mutilate themselves in an effort to get bugs out from under their skin.  R.C. attempts to intervene as the final voice of reason.

A-a-a-a-a-n-d then things go completely off the deep end.  

Look, I've loved some of Billy Friedkin's films in the past.  In fact, I still think that The Exorcist is one of the best horror movies ever made and the influence of The French Connection on modern cop dramas is undeniable.  But Bug just left me cold.  In the first half of the film, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are nothing short of brilliant but as their characters venture into over-the-top delusional behavior the film becomes unintentionally funny.  When Agnes screams "I am the super mother bug!" towards the end of the film I almost sprayed tea across the room.

Although Friedkin maintains that the film is "in many ways, a black comedy love story" the story ultimately fails in the same way that From Dusk Til Dawn failed to satisfy as both a horror film and as a crime drama.  For a film that covers similar dark territory but does it infinitely better, I would highly recommend you see Requiem for a Dream instead.

I still have to give the film a bit of praise.  It has a lot to say about how psychologically fragile people can be easily manipulated.  It examines the fine line between good and evil behavior.  It ponders what's real and what's merely a symptom of a very fevered collective imagination.  In fact, the movie is the cinematic equivalent to walking down Hastings Street in Vancouver just to witness the ravages of drugs and psychosis first hand.

Although the film itself is almost impossibly brave, the subject matter, crazed tonal pitches and dialogue-heavy, stagy qualities will likely ensure very few people stick around towards the end to get the point.

Tilt: down.

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