May 25, 2007 | Comments ()

By Dustin Rowles | Film | May 25, 2007 |


I’m not usually one to incorporate man-on-the-street opinions, but since everyone else in my hippie community (and the world at large, no doubt) but myself and one other fella were watching Pirates and the Caribbean today, I must quote my fellow theater-goer, if only because he so succinctly summed up my feelings about Bug (besides, in the legal world, he’d probably warrant an excited utterance to the hearsay exception). As the two of us were leaving the screening, this perfect stranger turned to me and so eloquently expressed what I imagine will take me around a 800 words here to needlessly refine. He simply said:

“That was weird.”

Or, to put it in the words of my old man, after sitting through one of his favorite Troma flicks (if anything, my father instilled in me a healthy endurance): “Duuuuusty, that was one motherfucking trip, son.” And how right he’d be, were he to share that sentiment after sitting through Bug (Ted Logan might also throw in a “Woah!”). I’d have a difficult time otherwise telling you whether Bug was either good or bad, but it was certainly an experience. An interminably long, slow-winding, suffocating descent into tripped-out paranoia. Indeed, Bug is either a hypochondriac’s worst nightmare or wettest dream — it’s hard to say which, but it’s most certainly not summer escapist fare.

Brought to you by director William Friedkin, helming his first decent film since The Exorcist, and made on a meager $4 million budget (none of which, mind you, was wasted on bugs), Bug begins and ends in the same dilapidated motel room (though there are a couple of brief forays outside of it). Ashley Judd, doing her best Juliette Lewis from Kalifornia impression (“Adele, put up ‘dat titty”) plays Agnes White, a white-trash Oklahoman who waits tables at the local small-town lesbian bar (who knew such a thing existed in Oklahoma?). She’s a lonely soul; she smokes 47 cartons of Camels (unfiltered, no doubt) a day and endures the harassment that comes along with once being married to a wife-beating ex-con, recently let out of prison (Harry Connick, doing that creepy thing he did so well in the otherwise tepid Copycat).

Early in the film, she meets Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a bit of a mild-mannered stray mutt, part Buddhist, part conspiracy theorist, and all out shit-kicking wackjob. The two of them bond over their own miseries; Agnes, a kidnapped child, and Peter a conspiratorial belief that the army is controlling him through electronic-signal transmitting aphids that live under his skin — you know, the usual stuff. And, of course, it’s damn near love at first site for those crazy kids, as they immediately consummate their relationship over cigarettes and the exchange of bodily fluids.

Naturally, the morning after, Peter finds his first insect — sure, it’s invisible to you and I, but in Peter’s mind, this little bed bug is wreaking havoc on his life. And thus begins the plunge into Friedkin’s creepy-crawly hell. Peter convinces the easily persuaded, insanely co-dependent Agnes that the room has been infested, and they spend the rest of the film trying to rid both the room and themselves of those destructive, blood-sucking little critters, going so far as to give the motel room a lovely aluminum foil and fly-paper makeover (Ty Pennington has nothing on Peter Evans).

Based on the off-Broadway play written (and adapted for the screen) by Tracy Letts, Bug does, at times, have a certain stagy feel to it, as though the lines were being delivered on a cheap set in a small auditorium. The acting, too, is wildly overwrought, but I suspect it was intentionally done for effect and, at least on me, it worked. Michael Shannon is absolutely fantastic, morphing from an easy-going weirdo into Brad Pitt’s Twelve Monkeys’ character, only considerably more psychotic and delusional, while Judd effectively plays against type, delivering an almost-but-not-quite laughable neurotically-charged performance.

It’d be easy enough, too, to read a certain political subtext into the film (the destruction that resulted from the non-existent WMDs in Iraq), but I chose to see Bug in a different way, as a not-so-subtle satire on government conspiracy theories. In fact, there are moments in the film that might’ve been otherwise hilarious if not for the grim, despairing nature of it all (in a certain context, I suspect, the same could be said of Linda Blair projectile spewing split-pea soup in The Exorcist). It’s not, either, the bloody horror flick that the advertisements portend — the terror of Bug is more psychological in nature, which is not to suggest that it doesn’t have its fair share of blood. Indeed, there is probably little else as cringe-inducingly horrific as watching a man stare into a mirror and pull out his own molars with a pair of pliers, a scene that had both me and my fellow movie-goer pressed into the backs of our seats, as if trying to escape the projector screen.

Still, Bugs is an awfully hard sell on a Memorial Day weekend, when most of you would probably rather watch Johnny Depp’s swordplay and Keira Knightley play the xylophone on her clavicle, but if you’re aiming for a trip into delusional paranoia, Bug will do the trick. And man alive: It is weird.

Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He lives with his wife in Ithaca, New York. You may email him, or leave a comment below.

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