Remember the character in A Scanner Darkly who thought aphids were crawling all over him? Bug is like a movie about that character and Ashley Judd in a motel room. And, much to the chagrin of those lured into theaters by Lionsgate’s wildly misleading ad campaign — which makes the film look like Slither or something — that’s pretty much all Bug is about. I knew going in that it was a psychological two-character drama (with three supporting players), so I wasn’t expecting a gore-and-latex-fest. What I didn’t know going in was how tedious an exercise it would prove to be.

Judd gives one of her tormented-white-trash performances as Agnes, a waitress in a lesbian bar, though herself heterosexual. Agnes is dreading the return of her abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) from prison. One afternoon about ten years ago, Agnes took her young son to the supermarket, he was kidnapped and never found, and she’s never gotten over it. She spends her nights snorting coke, counting her crumpled tips, and existing on the knife edge between loneliness and despair. In short, Agnes is a dream role for an actress hungry to leave mainstream fare far behind. Judd enacts Agnes’ misery skillfully enough, but the character hardly makes any sense.

Agnes’ coworker (Lynn Collins) brings a mysterious man into Agnes’ life — Peter (Michael Shannon), who seems good-hearted, if withdrawn. Shannon, perhaps best known of late as the zealous Marine who saved the cops’ lives in World Trade Center, has a creepy baby face that lends itself well to obsessive characters. So it’s not too surprising when Peter, a Gulf War vet, turns out to have a few screws loose. Like Rory Cochrane in A Scanner Darkly, Peter feels bugs on him — bugs no one else can see. Soon they’re not only on his skin, they’re under his skin, and then in his blood. Rather too quickly, Agnes believes Peter’s story, which metastasizes into full-blown conspiracy-theory paranoia enveloping everyone from Jim Jones to Timothy McVeigh (what, no Elvis?). The pair, soon flailing around in mutual hysteria, hole up in rooms literally wallpapered with tin foil.

William Friedkin directed Bug, and I have nothing much bad to say about the way he holds up his end of the deal. He delivers a tight, upsetting bit of work without falling into the quick-cut, shock-tactic habits of his inferiors. The fatal problem with Bug starts with the screenplay, adapted by Tracy Letts from his own stage play (Shannon originated his role onstage). This material badly wants to be searing and disturbing, but it’s all too obviously conceived as showboat material for actors, with little room for subtlety. Eventually, when Ashley Judd has to scream “I AM THE SUPER MOTHER BUG!”, it’s the sort of flashy theatrical moment that unavoidably becomes camp on the big screen. The actors work their tails off, but the material is essentially unsurprising and predetermined. It stays its psychotic course to the bitter, fiery end, which I suppose is some form of integrity, though not particularly edifying or entertaining.

For all its pretense, Bug plays like an overextended episode of the Showtime series Masters of Horror, and not one of the better ones, either. It deals in careless stereotypes — Crazy War Vet! Abused and Self-Abusing Southern Chick! — and brings real-world pain and atrocity, unearned, into its hermetic little duelling-monologue universe to beef it up. If not for the exertions of the actors, and if not for the welcome sight of William Friedkin weighing in with career-comeback direction, Bug probably wouldn’t be getting such a free ride from many critics. Is it more ambitious than most modern horror movies? Yes. Does ambition equal success? Don’t we all wish it did.

Explore posts in the same categories: adaptation, art-house, cult, drama, overrated

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