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.
The movie is a blessing. We know about Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century: from books, maybe, or our grandparents or great-grandparents. But Golden Door makes it tactile. The film has three distinct sections, each mysterious, each stylized in its own way. The first, in Sicily, frames the men and women who contemplate the journey to the New World against white stone: stone walls, stone hills, a sea of sharp stones between mountains and villages. There’s no music—only the sounds of chickens and goats. To leave the Old World is a wrenching decision for the farmer, Salvatore (Vincenzo Amato), his sons (one a deaf-mute), and his severe old mother (Aurora Quattrocchi). Their religion is as elemental as their homeland—they beg the saints for a sign. And they get a dilly: doctored photos from America showing people holding sci-fi-size mutant vegetables and money literally growing on trees.
The rhythms of the movie are slow and daydreamy, but Crialese delights in breaking up the realism with his protagonist’s mystical—almost madcap—visions of the New World’s abbondanza. The ship becomes a giant stage-set on which the Sicilians roam, pray, settle into bunks, and, tragically, die in numbers when a storm hits. (The camera remains below deck as they’re hurled around—there are no exterior shots once the movie leaves Sicily.) There is also an exotic creature aboard: a poised, smartly dressed Englishwoman called Lucy (Charlotte Gainsbourg) with a past she keeps to herself. Salvatore circles her, spies on her. She is like nothing he has ever seen. She is modernity itself.
What happens in the last section—on Ellis Island—will be an eye-opener for those of us who cling to our romantic illusions: a battery of intelligence tests to prevent “below average” people from polluting the genetic pool, even if it means admitting some family members and sending others back. By far the most jarring ritual is the one in which males are coldly paired with (frequently horrified) females for quickie marriages. (“Do you acknowledge him?”) The greatness of Golden Door is its tone; sympathetic but always wry. Its immigrants are processed and released into the New World, where so many doors have been opened and so many others slammed shut.
When I was a kid in the sixties, my parents would dump me and my little brother at the movies, where we’d see pitiful imports like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or slapstick comedies with Dean Jones and some fucked-up dog or ghost or Volkswagen. Today, at least in my overprotective circles, parents go along with their kids, which means the makers must appeal to multiple age groups. What studio executives call “hand-hold films” offer action, tomfoolery, and life lessons (“Believe in yourself,” “Dare to dream,” etc.) for kids, pop-culture in-jokes for grown-ups, and fart jokes for everyone. Shrek the Third isn’t up with the best of the genre, but it’s well above the median. I’m guessing it was a committee effort: multiple drafts by some of the top gag artists in the business and endless sprucing up by overpaid rewrite guys. Computer-generated animated movies with wall-to-wall jokes can be excruciating, but these jokes are the funniest money can buy.
I’m no Shrek pushover. I found the first one laborious, ugly, and, when Eddie Murphy’s donkey sidekick was rolling his eyes and sounding like the “colored” help in old movies, creepy. But the sequel was light on its feet, and by kid-flick standards, rather subversive. The fat green ogre Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers) fell for the willowy blonde Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), who turned out to have been under a spell: She was a fat green ogre herself! But she and Shrek weren’t allowed to live grossly ever after. The kings, queens, fairy godmothers, and Prince Charmings wanted her skinny and blonde again.
Shrek 2 had wave upon wave of parodies. Shrek the Third has more. It’s a busy movie, crammed with plot. While Fiona’s dad, the king (John Cleese), now a frog (long story), lays dying, Fiona and Shrek are expected to carry on the pomp and circumstance. But flatulent ogres and royal protocol don’t mix. So Shrek sets out to find another heir to the throne, one Arthur Pendragon (an earnest Justin Timberlake), a nerd at a medieval prep school across the ocean. As Shrek and his two sidekicks—Antonio Banderas’s swashbuckling feline somewhat compensating for Murphy’s ass—pull out to sea, Fiona stuns her husband with the news that she’s pregnant.
The last Shrek introduced—hilariously—a host of fairy-tale figures, and Shrek the Third widens the net. To take back the kingdom, the spurned Prince Charming (Rupert Everett) assembles a crew of defeated villains like Captain Hook and Rumpelstiltskin. Charming plans to stage a traditional fairy-tale melodrama in which he gets to slay the ogre, but what happens when he and Shrek face off before the kingdom is a nerd’s dream: Wit emasculates good looks. The bodily-function jokes fit beautifully into Shrek the Third’s slob-happy worldview. Early on, Shrek nuzzles Fiona in bed. “Morning breath,” he says, laughing. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
Brian Jun’s Steel City is the kind of Sundance-y film that critics used to label “deadbeat realism”—slices of working-class life that no working-class moviegoer would dream of sitting through. But this one works: It has vivid characters, a strong sense of place, and a free-floating hopelessness that never precludes the possibility of meaningful action. John Heard plays a father who goes to prison after killing a woman in a car crash, leaving his guilt-wracked son (Tom Guiry) to sort out his legacy and keep from making the same dumb mistakes as his dad and older brother. America Ferrera is the heavy Hispanic girl he unexpectedly—and happily—falls for. As Uncle Vic, Raymond J. Barry does the Christopher Walken thing: now avuncular, now fixed-and-dilated blood-freezing, the height of Method cool.
Bug screenwriter-playwright Tracy Letts, a member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company since 2002 and Pulitzer finalist for his 2003 play, Man From Nebraska, has been fascinated by psychodrama since childhood. When asked to share a story about grade school, he told Steppenwolf’s Backstage publication, “We had to make a little book, and my book was called The Psychopath. The cover of the book showed a man who had hung himself and shot himself in the head—a little detective story. A lot of teachers would have seen that and alerted social services. Yet my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Parker, gave me an A++, saying it was very creative!”
Directed by William Friedkin. LionsGate Films. R.
Directed by Emanuele Crialese. Miramax Films. PG-13.
Shrek the Third
Directed by Chris Miller. Paramount Pictures. PG.
Directed by Brian Jun. Truly Indie and Your Half Pictures. R.