Wunderkind-auteur William Friedkin who stormed the Hollywood gates with The French Connection and The Exorcist in the 1970’s enters the21st century with, Bug, a film that depicts the maddening descent into self-destructive paranoia. Adapted from the stage play of the same name, written by Tracy Letts and starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, Friedkin presents a noirish setting of a socially marginal characters inhabiting the outskirts of middle-America Oklahoma; which in this case is a lesbian bar and ramshackle roadside motel.
Shannon, who also starred in the stage play version, reprises his role as Peter Evans, an AWOL American soldier shows up at the motel run by Agnes White, played by Ashley Judd. Taking advantage of her rocky relationship with her abusive, ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) and no doubt, the unbearable sense of loneliness in such a remote setting, the deceptively withdrawn, Evans seduces Agnes and convinces her that the American government planted a bug inside of him upon his return from the first Gulf War. What follows is the precipitous fall into psychotic breakdown, as Evans mutilates himself with the gullible connivance of Agnes, in order to purge himself of the “bug” as planted by his former paymaster.
Bug is largely an actor’s piece and the cast has plenty of material to chew on with tour-de-force performances by both leads. Shannon has the seductive guile of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. He appears to be the all too kind, seemingly harmless man willing to listen to the problems of troubled Ashley Judd and only to sink his teeth into her neck and her conscience. The character arcs of the principals however is a springboard for the larger issue of human paranoia and the strain of conspiracy thinking that still have potency well into the 21st century. Friedkin’s Bug cannot be dismissed as merely the extreme paranoid regurgitations of two crank characters. One need only look at the scene in which Peter sits Agnes down on the bed and carefully explains to her how a group of powerful men, called the “Bilderburgers” decided to control the social, economic and political status quo by means of thought control and how they proceeded to plant ‘bugs’ in the likes of Timothy McVeigh and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Shannon’s character Peter Evans grafts what appear to be reasonable arguments that have a grain of truth in them and give the not-so-intellectual Agnes the intellectual certainty she needs to follow him on the road to ruin. The Peter Evans character will remind people of the likes of Branch Dravidian leader David Koresh or the Revered Jim Jones, both of whom led impressionable people down a poisonous path. Bug holds up the mirror to the audience and perhaps the many of us who have bought into the legion of Kennedy Assassination and 9/11 conspiracy theories.
The DVD features two note worthy extras: BUG: An Introduction and A Discussion with William Friedkin, in which the legendary director speaks candidly on both his varied career and the changes, which have marked the film industry since he burst onto the scene. Friedkin surveys the evolution of film (and some may say decline of literary film making of his generation) to the more attention-deficit disorder-MTV-like movie making which has come to dominate the planet since the 1980’s. Friedkin aficionados will enjoy the long answers he gives, especially the ones that relate to his fall from grace; from the man who held the zeitgeist of the 70’s to pariah, who couldn’t get hired. He directs operas now as well and doesn’t care about what the zeitgeist is.
Bug is not the typical slasher horror film people may be anticipating but it provides an emotionally gut wrenching and dark view into a corner of the human psyche. Paranoia is a virus and it kills. Bug is a Lionsgate release and hits street September 25 on DVD.