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William Friedkin
Cast: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins
Written by:
Joanne Ross

November 15, 2007

In a lonely room in a cheap, run-down motel a telephone rings. A young woman answers. “Hello,” she says. No response. She hangs up. Moments later, the telephone rings again. The woman answers. Again, no response. She hangs up. In the vernacular of film, this scene portends that something frightening is about to happen.  And it does


The movie is Bug, a horror film starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, and directed by the brilliant William Friedkin, the director of The Exorcist.  Be warned—this is not your typical horror story.  If you are expecting blood, torture, butchery, and a high body count, you’ll be disappointed. The destruction that takes place in Bug does not occur in hostels, on back-packing trips in the Outback, summer camps, a cabin in the woods, abandoned warehouses, or haunted houses, for that matter. It happens instead on the landscape of the human psyche. The psychological carnage is far more chilling than anything the presence of fake blood and the use of special effects could conjure up.

Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a battered and weary young woman working as a waitress and living in a road side motel. Hers is a lonely, barren, and painful existence filled only with work—when she has to—and isolation and drinking—when she can. Throughout, she is tormented by memories of the loss of her son Lloyd, who was abducted ten years ago at a grocery store where Agnes was shopping for food.  Now, she has just learned that her brutal ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.) has just been paroled, and is on his way home to her—to her dismay.  She is not safe.

Into this dismal existence comes Peter Evans (played by Michael Shannon), a haunted-looking young man whom her friend and co-worker RC (Lynn Collins) brings along for a visit. Peter is a man on the run from something—everything—but has nowhere to go. He is not safe.

Like Agnes, he wears his loneliness on his handsome face. As Peter and Agnes draw ever closer to each other, two lost souls seeking solace, Peter reluctantly confides to her about his ordeal and shares his conviction that he has been invested with bugs.

At the helm of this impressive film is William Friedkin who directs with a deft hand.  He keeps everything—the pacing, the sets, the actors, the dialog, the editing—tight and focused. He cleverly creates an aural landscape of bug-like sounds—the “humming” of the broken air conditioner, the “chirping” of the smoke alarm, the “buzzing” of the ceiling fan, the night-time cricket sounds—so that we, too, are certain, like Peter, that bugs are everywhere.  He also refrained from using a traditional musical soundtrack, which I consider a wise decision. With the exception of the opening and closing credits and one brief scene in the middle, and some source music (e.g., songs playing on the jukebox, etc.), there is no musical soundtrack. The story is strong enough to “speak” without the crutch of musical embellishment.

Both Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon pulled out the stops to deliver powerful performances. Each of them, near the end of the film, delivers separately two of the most convoluted and riveting monologues I have ever had the privilege of watching.

The chemistry between Judd and Shannon was palpable. Both actors brought their humanity to bear in their characterizations of the troubled Agnes and Peter. Watching the two of them in the scenes when they first meet--skittish, each wary of the other, reaching out only tentatively for fear of being hurt—is simultaneously awkward and touching.

Bug was adapted from a stage play, and the plot is actually suited to the conventions of theatrical production. Director Friedkin could have taken this material and opened it out to exploit the more naturalistic nature of film, but he chose to retain the conventions of limited time, limited space. His choice intensified the confinement of the self-induced isolation of the two lead characters, which is echoed by their psychological isolation. Rational thought and sanity have fled, replaced by delusion, around which the characters have built a fortress so impenetrable, that no outside influence can penetrate—her ex-husband, her best friend, and his doctor. Our two main characters—victimized, vulnerable, wounded, and untethered are at last in a world of their own making. Adam and Eve. Drone and Queen.

We have just witnessed their descent into madness.


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