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Bug (2007)

December 17th, 2007 · 5 Comments

Bug 2007 poster.jpg   Bug DVD cover.jpg

At the Rustic Motel somewhere in the flatlands of Oklahoma, Agnes White (Ashley Judd) begins receiving strange phone calls at night. All she hears is breathing, and assumes it’s her ex Jerry, who’s just been paroled. Cigarettes and wine do little to calm her nerves. After her shift as a waitress at a gay bar is over, Agnes’ co-worker R.C. (Lynn Collins) comes over to get high. R.C. brings along a quiet stranger who goes by the name Peter (Michael Shannon).

Peter claims to be able to “pick up on things”. Such as that Agnes is lonely, and that she lied to him about not having kids. Agnes tells him she used to have a son, but he disappeared from a grocery store years ago. Without any place to go, Peter gets permission to sleep on the sofa. In the morning, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) drops by. He smacks his ex-wife around and lets her know he’ll be back. Not wanting to be alone, Agnes invites Peter to stay.

Peter wakes in the middle of the night claiming a bug bit him. He finds what he calls an “aphid” in the bedsheets. Agnes can’t really see what he’s talking about. Peter gets spooked, stating there are people after him. He claims that while serving in the Middle East, the Army experimented on him and he went AWOL. Agnes accepts Peter’s schizophrenia as reality. Together, they take measures to repel the bugs they believe have infested the place.

Bug 2007 Ashley Judd pic 1.jpg

Production history 
Written by Oklahoma native Tracy Letts, Bug had its stage premiere in London in 1996. It debuted off-Broadway eight years later, with Shannon Cochran taking over at the last minute for Amanda Plummer in the role of Agnes, and Michael Shannon reprising his role as Peter from the London production. The play won four Lucille Lortel Awards (including Best Play) and two Obie Awards for its acting company and design team.

Director William Friedkin saw the play in New York, and felt as if it had been written for him. Friedkin was so compelled that in June 2004, he optioned the film rights, with Letts adapting the screenplay. Friedkin approached Ashley Judd to star. Judd’s agent advised her that the material might be too dark, but that only intrigued her. Friedkin also insisted Michael Shannon reprise the role he’d been playing on stage for a decade.

With a budget of $4 million, a 20-day shooting schedule commenced in July 2005. The motel exterior was a real location in Olancha, California, while the interiors were shot on a stage built inside a high school gym in Metairie, Louisiana. Bug was awarded the International Film Critics Award for the promotion of new cinema at the Cannes Film Festival, and was widely touted as Friedkin’s best film in over 20 years when released in May 2007.

Bug 2007 Ashley Judd Harry Connick Jr pic 2.jpg

The film not only performed relatively well at the box office, but found admirers among critics. I agree that this is Friedkin’s best movie in two decades, but that’s nothing to celebrate with a parade when you consider what his output has been reduced to. The Guardian (not the Kevin Costner/Ashton Kutcher one, the druid one), Rampage, Blue Chips, Jade and The Hunted were virtually unwatchable movies.

Bug runs 102 minutes, and one hour of that is watchable. The film begins with a spectacular aerial shot that glides from the night sky and floats down onto the motel. Friedkin establishes a tense Gothic mood, while Letts has a fine ear for dialogue. The casting is strong, with Ashley Judd giving an even grittier performance than the one she gave for Come Early Morning. Michael Shannon and Lynn Collins are terrific finds that I hope will get a lot more work in movies.

Unfortunately, the last 40 minutes are so broad minded, so over the top, and so repellent that it’s easy to understand why a director like Friedkin thought Bug might make an interesting movie. Letts evokes some spot-on cultural paranoia, but backs away from writing a compelling narrative to have his characters revel in a freak show antics instead. Ashley Judd is terrific, but the movie ends up being far more laughable than it is intense.

Bug 2007 Brian OByrne Ashley Judd Michael Shannon pic 3.jpg

Nick Schager at Lessons of Darkness writes, “Bug is William Friedkin’s best film in at least two decades, a compliment that must be tempered by the disclaimer that, after its first thirty minutes, this adaptation of Tracy Letts’ stage play begins to lose its sure-footing. Those first thirty minutes, though, are something else, achieving an exhilarating sense of foreboding and unease.” He gives it a B.

“This is a bleak, harrowing look into an unhealthy relationship so nasty, only the jet-black comedy aspects manage to save it from being too unpalatable for anyone. You might love it, you might hate it, but one thing’s for sure – it takes risks, and it commands your attention throughout,” writes Vince Leo at QWipster’s Movie Reviews.

Tom Becker at DVD Verdict writes, “This film certainly has its champions, and it is unquestionably unlike anything out there from a ‘name’ director and starring a ‘name’ actress. Both Judd and Shannon give courageous performances here, and much of the film is actually very funny. Some people will find this edgy, riveting, and unique. I just don’t happen to be among them.”

“This spring, from the Academy Award winning director of The Exorcist, comes the movie the Chicago Tribune calls ‘one of the most disturbing horror movies imaginable.'” View the theatrical trailer for Bug.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Based on play · Paranoia · Surprise after end credits · Woman in jeopardy

5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Megan // Dec 18, 2007 at 3:35 am

    I would rather not see this. Call me a coward…and you would be right…

  • 2 Chuck // Dec 18, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    I actually dug this flick, though I agree with the majority of what you wrote here Joe. That radical tonal shift is a divider though, and seems to dictate whether you ultimately end up going along for the ride or not. I went with it, and admired the lunacy of the piece. Great movie? Nah, but the thing has stuck with me, and the performances are, well, committed, certainly.

  • 3 cjKennedy // Dec 23, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Ok, I admit I’m picking a weird film for my first comment at Distracted Globe, but I have to confess I kind of liked this movie.

    At the same time, I’d never try and talk someone into seeing it.

    The beginning was so good, I was almost willing to play along once the thing flew off the rails in the last third. I might have been able to do it if the audience I saw it with wasn’t laughing…

  • 4 Joe Valdez // Dec 26, 2007 at 12:33 pm

    Megan: I think it’s safe to say you could live to 110, never see this movie and still live a full life.Thanks for your comment!

    Chuck: Most of the reviews I came across were in support of the film. As you mention in your great capsule, this is a ride, and like most rollercoasters, it is sure to produce either euphoria or nausea on the part of the viewer.

    Craig: Your statement is right on the money and shows why Living in Cinema is such an excellent site. “Weird” and “I kind of liked this movie” are probably more accurate descriptions of Bug than a lot of the critical raves I read. Thanks for commenting!

  • 5 annie // Mar 2, 2009 at 10:14 pm

    a.) great blog!
    b.) I saw Michael Shannon And Shannon Cochran do the play (stunningly) in NY. Bug was meant for the stage. The violence was the best, most realistic I’d ever seen and the craziness of it just never translated to a tone that makes any sense in a film. The play was scary, funny, and incredibly tense. The movie is mostly disorienting. And I don’t think the play was nearly as long. BUT, that said, as a stage to film assay, it’s not terrible.

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