Bug, directed by William Friedkin from Tracy Letts’s play, has the feverish compression of live theater and the moody expansiveness of film. The mix is insanely powerful. Letts, also an actor, is a member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre by way of Oklahoma. He has a gift for bumping realism into surrealism with a well-placed nudge, for writing dialogue that drives his actors into each other’s faces (if not each other’s souls), and for picking up and distilling eerie signals from the heartland—anxieties that blossom into conspiracy theories, conspiracy theories that explode into delusions. The path toward conflagration is absurd, and inexorable.
The movie centers on a folie à deux—yet one that, at first, doesn’t seem so folle. It’s two lonely misfits building a sanctuary. Ashley Judd plays Agnes White, a forlorn, rather dissolute divorcée who lives in a rustic Oklahoma motel (called, evocatively, Rustic Motel). Her phone rings night and day, but no one speaks. Are the calls from her ex, newly out on parole? Do they have something to do with a helicopter that circles the motel? Unnerving stuff, especially the way Friedkin and his sound designer, Steve Boeddeker, move the noises from speaker to speaker. By and by, her lesbian friend (Lynn Collins) brings over a soft-spoken lunk named Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) for booze and blow. “I’m not an ax murderer,” he announces, twice, when he hears the women speculating on his origins. He does, however, leave the door open for other possibilities.
At first, Friedkin keeps Agnes and Peter in separate boxes in her dingy motel efficiency, but watch how they’re drawn together: first by the appearance of her gaudily abusive ex (Harry Connick Jr.), then by those noises—a banging air conditioner, a beeping smoke alarm, the chop of helicopter blades. No wonder Agnes likes having a man around. When Peter delivers a quiet rant about the omnipresent, mind-altering hum of machines, she calls it “crazy shit,” then adds that she likes the way he talks. When he points out a bug—an aphid, of which he has prodigious knowledge—on his pillow, she can’t see a thing and then maybe, wait, yes, maybe … she can. Slowly, this nondescript motel room becomes a forest of flypaper strips and a thicket of psychoses—and what began as kitchen-sink naturalism becomes, well, crazy shit. What’s at the root of the infestation? Iraq, chemical weapons, Tuskegee, AIDS research: It all goes into Letts’s cauldron of blood.
I wish I’d been able to giggle at Bug for being so over-the-top. But line by line, beat by beat, it’s gripping stuff, and Friedkin puts you right in the middle of the mêlée. How did the coldly detached director of The French Connection, The Exorcist, and To Live and Die in L.A. manage to get inside this play—preserving its theatricality yet making it such a live-wire experience? The actors contribute much. Michael Shannon (the intransigently patriotic ex-Marine in World Trade Center) played Peter onstage for years, and his sunken demeanor—his lack of spontaneity—gives him a Golem-like poignancy. But Bug belongs to Judd, maybe the most unsung great actress in American movies. She has made herself look convincingly dissipated—puffy, baggy-eyed, almost used-up, yet still very, very beautiful. No matter how heightened the dialogue, there isn’t a line that doesn’t sound as if it’s coming out of her head. Her Agnes is clearly projecting like mad onto her new lover—even welcoming the dementia that envelops her. Watching Judd, I didn’t only think of women in abusive relationships, but of Abu Ghraib poster girl Lynndie England, a not-too-bright small-town girl who got sucked into her controlling boyfriend’s universe—who eagerly posed for her man the way so many young women do, becoming a character in someone else’s sick fantasy.
Incidentally, some of the posters for Bug depict Judd as a kind of Star Trek Borg Queen and scream “Horror movie!” The distributor, Lionsgate, is the best in the business at promoting films like Saw, and the campaign might work—in the short term. But I guarantee you that 99 percent of those who go to Bug thinking they’re in for good, gooey fun with the babe from Kiss the Girls are going to riot in the aisles.
You’ll hear a lot about a momentous and magical overhead shot in Emanuele Crialese’s Golden Door. Hundreds of Sicilians assemble on the deck of a ship sailing for America, while hundreds of their countrymen (and family members) stand on the other side of the railing. From above, they are one group, one people, covering the screen from corner to corner in their dark coats and hats—and then, with a deep rumble, the ship begins to pull away, an ocean opening between them. What’s disorienting is that the camera stays with the ship, so it’s the people on land who appear to be sailing away. And, in a sense, they are: into history.