Running time: 102 minutes
Directed by: William Friedkin
Written by: Tracy Letts
Starring: Ashley Judd, Harry Connick, Jr.
Today’s movies are often filled with paranoia, and sometimes they get too schizophrenic for coherence or comfort. But a movie that is about nothing but paranoid schizophrenia from start to finish is rare as an authentic, autographed eight-by-10 of Jack the Ripper. A sick little number called Bug is just such a movie. Bring a barf bag.
Based on the creeped-out play by Tracy Letts, whose screenplay remains faithful to the freaky original, Bug is ugly, repellent, nauseating and relentlessly lurid. (Specialties of the house, served often by director William Friedkin, but not with much box-office success.) I feel I should say something about the shock effects, but I truly don’t know where to begin. In a trailer court aptly called the Rustic Motel, on an Oklahoma highway in the middle of nowhere so filthy and primitive that it makes the abattoir in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre look like the Hotel du Cap, a battered cocktail waitress (Ashley Judd) lies around snorting coke with a lesbian friend (Lynn Collins), listening to a ringing phone with nobody on the other end. Enter a cadaverous war veteran (Michael Shannon, repeating his original role) who convinces them there’s radioactive plutonium in the smoke alarm. The next morning, Judd’s ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr., without a piano to save him) steps out of the shower after two years in prison and beats the living daylights out of her. The young stranger, who is now her lover, has a head full of phantom theories about the dangers of technology and germ warfare, and the bulk of the film centers on the insects, plant lice and bug larvae he believes are growing under his skin as a result of macabre medical experiments conducted by the U.S. government. Convinced the bug eggs have moved from the bedsheets into her own skin, Ms. Judd fills the room with fly catchers hanging from the ceiling, insecticides and bug sprays that spread unspeakable poisons to her lungs, glands and bloodstream. Much self-mutilation results, but by the time they strip naked, ripping out their teeth searching for egg sacks inside their gums, Bug unleashes more horrors than a normal audience will tolerate. There is no content worth mentioning, but for style Mr. Friedkin returns to the shadowy, decaying look of his worst film, the torturous homophobic disaster Cruising. Everything is so dark you wonder if anyone involved has ever heard of electricity. The claustrophobic murk is a combination of Kafka and life in an outhouse. But in the end, it makes no point at all. So obscure that it never irons out its wrinkles to a smooth template for nouveau horror, Bug provides an alternate vision that reacts against the mainstream slash-and-hack school of teen horror flicks, but its paranoia is so political that it ends up becoming depoliticized in its exaggerated rant. A dismal excess of moral apathy that blames the Republicans for computer chips that control world religion, economics and population growth—not to mention bad movies—it’s clear from the get-go that Bug is headed for a date with a lighted match. Count on it: It’s the only thing in the movie that makes sense. I read an interview in which Ashley Judd called this sick assault on the senses “an extreme love story.” I want to be on what she’s on.
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