A REASSESSMENT FILE
By Paul McMahon – “The Distracted Critic”
When it came out, there was a pronounced buzz about BUG. No pun intended. Well, okay, maybe. Either way, a new horror movie by the director of THE EXORCIST (1973) got people excited. The Hollywood Video near me carried six copies of this, and I was able to get my hands on one that first week.
The story was small in scope, focusing on characters acting and reacting off each other. I’m pretty fond of such movies. THE BIG CHILL (1983), GLENGARRY GLENROSS (1992), and even INDIAN SUMMER (1993) I count among my favorite movies. In this one, I can remember a woman trying to break off her relationship with an abusive husband while holing up in a motel room, only her friend brings another man along who turns out to have some sort of untreated mental disorder. I remember it getting nasty and tense and heartbreaking. Still, my recollection is high: a three-knife film.
Time to give this one another look.
We’ll forgive the opening shot, a still image from deep in the third act that has no place at all here. It was forced by the money lenders, no doubt, intended to create a sense of shock and awe to hook the audience because the producers didn’t think the movie opened with a big enough splash. This image is like their teddy bear, making them feel more secure that they’ll earn their money back.
Hollywood producers can be skittish fools.
Anyway. We hear a phone ringing. Agnes White (Ashley Judd, DOUBLE JEOPARDY, 1999, and DIVERGENT, 2014) answers it. No response. She hangs up, it rings again. Again, no response. The next time she says, “Jerry, is that you?” and ends up hanging up again. Agnes lives alone in the last unit of a run-down motel, the only spot of civilization in a huge farming area. The a/c is sporadic, there are empty bottles everywhere, and dirty dishes sit here and there on the furniture. And the phone rings again. She’s finally had enough and picks up the phone. She asks “Jerry” if he’s out now, then tells him she’ll call the cops and have him put away again. When that doesn’t get a response, she barks that she has a gun and hangs up again.
The next morning, she leaves to do some grocery shopping at a local convenience store. She gets transfixed by the display of red onions and an empty shopping cart. Later, we see her at work, waitressing at a dive that apparently caters to lesbians. Her friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins, THE NUMBER 23, 2007, and JOHN CARTER, 2012) is trying to convince her to attend a party after work, but she doesn’t want to. Later, R.C. brings a man to Aggie’s motel room. Someone she’s just met. He ducks into Aggie’s bathroom. Aggie asks R.C. what’s wrong with the guy. R.C. says he’s just quiet. Aggie says, “Axe murderers are quiet,” then she tells her friend that Jerry got out of prison and has been calling. R.C. tells her she should call the cops immediately, and while they argue about that, the man comes out of the bathroom and declares that he’s not an axe murderer.
R.C. gets a call that her girlfriend has had trouble at the party. She leaves in a hurry, but the guy she brought stays behind. Outside the motel room, they watch R.C. drive away, and the guy, Peter Evans (Michael Shannon, THE ICEMAN, 2012, and General Zod in MAN OF STEEL, 2013), tries to keep the conversation going, but he’s painfully bad at it. Aggie can’t believe he doesn’t want a drink and says people who don’t drink make her nervous. Peter says he makes people nervous anyway because he picks up on things.
“Things that are not apparent,” he says.
He tells her he must leave, but he wants to see her again. He assures her he doesn’t want to sleep with her, that he’s not into women. She brings him back into her room, and soon he hears something. He turns off the radio and listens. Aggie says it’s just a cricket and nothing to worry about, but soon they’re both on their hands and knees, looking everywhere for this bug. Eventually, they decide it’s in the fire alarm. Aggie hands Peter a magic 8-ball and he uses it to bash the alarm off the ceiling. He then tells her to get rid of the toy, because it’s loaded with radioactive materials. Again, he says he should leave, but when she asks where he’ll go, he confesses he doesn’t have any place. She offers him the couch. He sleeps on the floor, instead.
She wakes to sunlight and the sound of the shower running. There’s coffee brewing and she pours a cup, then hears the shower shut off. She walks to the door and says to Peter, “Thanks for making coffee.” The bathroom door opens and a muscular, dark-haired man, not Peter, steps out with a grin. Jerry. And he’s not happy that some other man stayed with his wife last night.
BUG started out as a very successful stage play. Michael Shannon debuted the role of Peter on stage, and stuck with the production for more than a year. Director William Friedkin (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, 1971, THE HUNTED, 2003 and of course the aforementioned THE EXORCIST, 1973) saw the show, which haunted him so much he had to go back and see it a second time. Eventually, he talked with playwright Tracy Letts, who adapted his own play for the screen. Letts went on to write screenplays for KILLER JOE, 2011, and AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, 2013, both adaptions of his own stage plays.
This re-watch of the movie surprised me. I came away angry with myself for waiting so long to see it again. I can remember wanting to watch it again right away, but running into time constraints. I let it get away from me, and that’s a shame. This movie is terrific.
Ashley Judd is mesmerizing, showing every facet of this vulnerable and lonely woman who’s lost her only child and therefore her purpose in life. She has nothing and she knows it. When Peter, another lost soul, finds his way into her little world, she clings to him and accepts his every utterance to manufacture the sense of connection she’s lacked for so long.
Michael Shannon is quite brilliant as Peter Evans. You’re not sure if he’s crazy, sane, earnest, conniving, truthful, or blatantly lying from one frame to another. He is totally believable in every moment of the movie, and at times you even wish you could jump in and try to steer these two onto a path that isn’t bound to end in destruction.
As Jerry Goss, Harry Connick, Jr. (COPYCAT, 1995, and INDEPENDENCE DAY, 1996) terrifies. It’s even a little frightening how a baby-faced musician of such bright jazz performances can slip completely into a character that’s so angry and possessive and manipulating. He adds a thick tone of real tension to the story. You want Peter and Aggie to pull out of their selves long enough to deal with this madman who you’re sure is intent on destroying them both.
Friedkin’s direction is brilliant as well. This story takes place in a single small room, but the way it’s presented it becomes larger-than-life. There is an entire world between these four walls, and anything can happen. Friedkin balances the grandiose and the microscopic deftly. This is an Oscar-worthy film in many categories. In a world where horror movies aren’t anathema to The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, BUG would have been up for Best Actress, Ashley Judd; Best Actor, Michael Shannon; Best Director, William Friedkin; Best Screenplay Adapted From Another Medium, Tracy Letts (based on his stage play); Best Production Design; and quite possibly Best Supporting Actor, Harry Connick, Jr.
This movie really is a remarkable achievement. It’s weird, intense, claustrophobic, and thought-provoking in all the best ways. There’s no way I’m letting this one slip off my radar again. It’s well worth hunting down. It’ll leave you cold.
BUG, original assessment: three knives out of five.
BUG, reassessment: five knives
© Copyright 2017 by Paul McMahon