Friday, May 25, 2007


directed by William Friedkin
screenplay by Tracey Letts, based on his play
starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Lynn Collins, Brian F. O’Byrne

Judd as Agnes White in Bug
All you Ashley Judd naysayers out there need to find another scapegoat. In the exceptionally creepy little gem Bug, Judd finally returns to form with a nervy, fearless performance. As she proved in last year’s little-seen indie character study, Come Early Morning, Judd is a terrific actress who decided to make a lot of money running around in routine Hollywood thrillers while being pursued (Double Jeopardy and Kiss the Girls, for starters). Judd always exudes intelligence and levelheadedness–even in her underrated stage appearances in Picnic and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof–which is a rare trait for an actress.

Of course, Bug is not to be recommended to anyone who actually enjoyed those earlier movies, for the Ashley Judd they will see here doesn’t resemble those generic heroines. Judd plays Agnes, a lonely divorcĂ©e who–after finally letting go of her abusive ex–finds an unlikely soul mate in Peter, an army veteran who convinces her that he was an unwilling guinea pig for military experiments. Judd throws herself into this character, who may not be anyone’s idea of a real heroine, but who gains strong sympathy as a gullible drug addict who wants desperately to be close to someone again, no matter what the cost is to her sanity...or her life.

A smash off-Broadway hit a few seasons back, Tracy Letts’ play can be seen from many different angles: as a parable about conformity, a fable about post-9/11 paranoia, or simply as a down and dirty glimpse at two people descending into their own personal hell. What distinguished it onstage–along with Letts’ vivid writing–was the acting of Shannon Cochran (Agnes) and Michael Shannon (Peter), who both let it all hang out–literally–as their characters gradually stripped themselves bare of everything (including clothing) to show the scary and ultimate result of two emotionally flawed people falling in love.

The fact that Bug can also work as a love story, however fatally obsessive, is definitely how director William Friedkin approaches it. Friedkin avoids the temptation to open up the play too much; there are a few outdoor sequences, but most of the action takes place in Agnes’ small motel room, which heightens the sense of overwhelming claustrophobia. The first shot of the film (which is occasionally repeated) is a clever “God’s eye view” traveling shot above the motel that could be interpreted as an oncoming swarm of insects, Peter’s paranoia–or worse.

Throughout Bug, Friedkin chooses surprisingly effective camera set-ups to go with the canny, breakneck editing, which could fool some into thinking that this is merely another schlocky shocker. He’s obviously in his element in enclosed spaces–the most harrowing scenes in The Exorcist took place in the possessed girl’s bedroom–as he slowly tightens the proverbial noose around the necks of his characters and the audience.

But none of what we are watching would make much sense without the work of actors unafraid to take on such explosive material. As Peter, Michael Shannon reprises his stage role with equal ferocity, literally forcing us into sympathizing with his crazy delusions. He and Judd work so well together that Shannon Cochran–superb as she was onstage–is never missed.

In supporting roles, Lynn Collins (Agnes’ lesbian friend), Harry Connick (Agnes’ abusive ex) and Brian F. O’Byrne (Peter’s military caretaker) are each impressively authentic, which gives Judd and Shannon something substantive to play off. But it’s Judd who most astonishes. She’s so utterly convincing in her desperation that she compels us to keep watching, even though we know a less-than-happy ending is just around the corner.

Bug is no horror movie–at least not what is considered “horror” nowadays–but it’s surely the most frightening onscreen romance in many a moon.
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