After years of seeing Ashley Judd as little more than a doe-eyed cutie-pie with limited acting skills, I (skeptically) sat down to watch her in William Friedkin's "Bug." Regarding the director, well, it's tough to knock the man who gave us "The Exorcist," "Sorcerer," and "The French Connection," but over the last several years his output has been more like "Jade," "Blue Chips," and "The Rules of Engagement" -- so I can be forgiven for doling out some skepticism on that end, too. Well that's why we actually sit down and give every new movie a fair shake: Because you never know when an actor or a director will deliver a nice surprise. As you can probably tell by this point, "Bug" is just such a surprise.
Based on the novel by Tracy Letts and boasting a phenomenal lead performance by the scarily intense Michael Shannon, "Bug" is about a lonely woman and a potentially disturbed man who hole up together in a grungy hotel room ... and slowly start to lose their collective mind. Lionsgate can be forgiven for selling "Bug" as a full-bore horror flick, because lord knows a movie like this is a really tough sell, but the truth is that if you're expecting a shock-a-minute gore-fest, you'll probably hate this movie. On the other hand, if you have a thing for
"one-room" concepts that present a prickly premise and then spend the next 75 minutes wringing out the intensity, you'll probably appreciate "Bug" as much as I did ... and walk away from the flick equally as surprised.
There's not much more I can divulge about the plot, mainly because it's a fairly simple affair (on the surface) and I certainly don't want to spoil anything -- but let's just say "Bug" is a tight-fisted and powerfully schizophrenic story of loneliness, loss, and the potentially appealing nature of gradual insanity. When people are slowly veering off the deep end, are they aware of their tenuous grasp on reality? Is a life of frantic delusion preferable to an existence of isolation and
disappointment? Misery loves company, sure, but how deep does that river flow? And what of the titular insects? Shannon's character is well and truly convinced that he's been invaded by ... something, and it doesn't take long before his new girlfriend is absorbed by his dementia. Dark stuff, sure, but deeply compelling, too.
While it's true that Friedkin's adaptation definitely feels like a "filmed play," which is usually something that works against a film, Judd and Shannon make such a strangely fascinating pair that we don't much mind the lack of fresh air or sunlight. (Or maybe we do, we just don't realize it.) Judd and Shannon waver between strangely sympathetic and downright nutty, but their performances never waver. (Seriously, this is Judd's finest work by far, and in a just universe Michael Shannon would win 40 awards for his work here.) Harry Connick Jr. stops by a few times -- as a man who is resoundingly unwelcome in the "Bug" room. As far as Mr. Friedkin goes, this "smaller" experiment turns out to be his best film in over 20 years.
Hats off to Lionsgate for taking a chance on a "horror" flick that's not exactly their normal bread and butter, but I suspect that "Bug" is more of a DVD discovery than any sort of multiplex meal. It's worth the eight bucks, absolutely, but the movie might actually work better on a small screen. Anyway, Shannon's performance alone is worth the ticket and the 95 minutes, easily.