Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Shannon, Luca Foggiano, Brian F. O'Byrne, Lynn Collins
Written by: Tracy Letts, based on her play
Directed by: William Friedkin
MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use
Running Time: 101
Date: 05/19/2006

Bug (2007)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Harder They Crawl

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

William Friedkin's new Bug is being advertised as a straight-up horror film, invoking his Academy Award (for The French Connection) as well as his cache as director of the original The Exorcist (1973). Audiences expecting something spooky (or perhaps funny, like last year's Slither) will probably want their money back. For one thing, Bug is based on an Off-Broadway play (playwright Tracy Letts also wrote the script) and takes place almost entirely in a dingy, remote motel room. For another, looming helicopters and evil bugs won't raise many neck hairs, but worrying about them can induce panic.

Picture the hospital scene in The Exorcist, in which Regan undergoes a barrage of horrifying looking tests (a noisy, robotic X-ray machine, a tube inserted into a spurting vein), and you'll have a better idea of Bug. This is dramatic horror on a human scale. Friedkin's trademark has always been his intense, journalistic research into all his subject matter, grounding each film in reality -- especially The Exorcist. Yet, Bug is deliberately evasive, talking in the rattling, inconclusive language of conspiracies and paranoia, neither proving nor disproving anything.

Cocktail waitress Agnes (Ashley Judd) lives a sad, lonely existence, hiding from a sadistic ex (Harry Connick Jr.) and mourning the loss of a young son. Her best friend (Lynn Collins) introduces her to Peter (Michael Shannon -- who also appeared in the play), and they hit it off. Before long, Peter begins to feel bug bites and announces that bugs are crawling around under his skin. Agnes begins to believe him and she, too, suffers bites. Peter explains that, as an ex-soldier, he was the victim of government experiments. The frightening thing is that he has a fully formed explanation for everything that happens, whereas the other side of the coin is merely: "he's nuts." Who to believe?

No stranger to filming plays, Friedkin doesn't bother to open any of this up. Rather, he jumps at the chance to make the room shrink, from the weak, dusty light that seeps in through the curtains during the first section, to the striking tin-foil look of the final section. It's not just about talking, either. Judd and Shannon handle their intimate moments with impressive skill, but these are above all, shockingly physical performances that must have required uncanny focus and perhaps lots of naps in-between. No fooling: this is a crazy, intense creepster of a movie, masterfully directed in great sinking movements. It's The Exorcist for a darker time.

Lionsgate's excellent DVD comes with a uncharacteristically dull William Friedkin commentary track (he mostly "narrates" the film), as well as a slightly more interesting 30-minute discussion with Friedkin, a 12-minute "introduction" to the film, and trailers for other Lionsgate films (not surprisingly, mostly horror films). The audio is mastered in both 5.1 and 2.0 and the film comes with optional English and Spanish subtitles.

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