USA (102 mi) 2006 d: William Friedkin
From a brilliant opening shot that swoops down from an aerial view of a darkened sky into a desolate, neon-lit, hole-in-the-wall Rustic Motel, a woman stands alone outside her door as the phone rings simultaneous to the credit title – BUG, where such perfect timing gives it an ominous ring. Very much in the exact same mode as her previous performance wearing no makeup in COME SUNDAY MORNING (2006), though venturing into completely unexplored territory here, Ashley Judd plays a feisty, independent minded, hard-drinking country girl working at a roadside bar, whose sexual interests appear to run toward whoever’s available, that initially happens to be one of the other younger cocktail waitresses, the blond, sexy, heavily tattooed R.C. played by Lynn Collins. The two of them bring a guy (Michael Shannon) back to her motel room for a little intimate party, and the guy’s shyness intrigues her, as it’s quite a contrast to her overly aggressive, abusive ex, Harry Connick Jr, who’s about to be paroled from prison. Shannon is the kind of guy who naturally fades into the woodwork leaving no trace of himself, easily forgettable, yet what comes out of his mouth is quietly soft-spoken and reflective, revealing an awkward, uncomfortable nature that needs nurturing and reassurance. As he apparently has no place to go, she allows him to spend the night, as she’s been getting suspicious prank phone calls from a caller who never says a word, which she believes are coming from her ex-husband.
Initially based on a play by Tracy Letts, where the film requires the audience to accept skips of large blocks of time, similar to the structure of a play, the staging and subject matter bear a strange resemblance to Sam Shepard’s play FOOL IN LOVE (1985), as both take place in total isolation, far beyond any traces of civilization in what looks like the most run down, dilapidated motel imaginable. Both feature attractive, vulnerable women with indescribably dark secrets, and both feature men who stretch the limits of the imagination, where the women can’t seem to help themselves from following these dreamy yet equally demented men into their own mysteriously scarred pasts. While Shepard offsets his strangely bizarre lovers with a gentle and soft-spoken gentleman caller, who might provide a much needed respit from her tortured soul, this film counters with the manic fury of Harry Connick Jr, who plants a fist to the mouth of Judd as his way of saying hello after a two year absence, where she must obviously look elsewhere from the dead end path of fear and abuse, which leads her into the hands of this strange and peculiar guy. What does transpire is her complete willingness to lose herself over this guy she barely knows, where their first sexual encounter ends with a near subliminal image of a bug that only begins their journey together.
An odd tale of love and loneliness, perhaps a variation on beauty and the beast, BUG is a bit preposterous, but an extremely effective escalation of horror taking place inside the minds of this young couple, where there are sudden shifts in mood that only grow darker and more intense, and where out of the blue, the film veers closer to Cronenberg’s THE FLY (1986), as once he convinces her to believe the room is infested with unseen bugs, where he offers his own off-the-wall, paranoiac theories about their origins, both characters morph into transformed versions of themselves that bear little resemblance to their former selves, where even the look of the motel room undergoes such a radical transformation that one wonders if we missed something. When the guy’s army doctor arrives, paying some credence to his wacky theories about being the victim of horrific medical experimentation, Friedkin kicks into high gear with a truly dramatic, somewhat surrealistic surge of delirium that defies explanation, exaggerated by the frenetic movements of a hand held camera, pulsating white lights, and the elevated use of sound from a hovering helicopter, all of which combine to shatter our sense of complacency, where an unknown, unseen force is truly kicking at the doors of our perceptions. Nothing short of an apocalypse is waiting outside. The acting is especially good, with Judd pushing the limits of her persona beyond anyone’s expectations, becoming nakedly trusting, even describing herself as a woman who looks surprisingly better with her clothes off, then bravely proves that to be the case. The growing anguish that accompanies her nightmarish descent into legitimate horror carries no false notes; Shannon as well lends an off-the-fringe believability, leading to an inevitable conclusion that feels light years from the shy initial encounter that started it all. Please note – the film continues during the final end credits, leaving a final image only after the credit sequence has actually ended.