Based on Tracy Letts' off-Broadway hit, Friedkin's modestly produced feature confines its creepy-crawly head games to one dingy motel room, where a barmaid (Ashley Judd) holes up with a wigged-out stranger (Michael Shannon) just back from combat operations in the Middle East. These two damaged souls let their imaginations run wild, leading to madness and an erotic-violent climax right out of Almodóvar's Matador. Let's just say the vet has got something under his skin -- an itch he can't truly scratch. As for Judd's jittery Agnes -- she's had a rough time ever since her toddler son went missing. In recent years, she has also struggled to keep a distance from the inmate ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) who battered her. At the start of the movie, Agnes gets phone calls that suggest the convict has been sprung. Message: The war at home is a killer too.
Not to say that Friedkin, whose demonic-possession flick threatened to exorcise the women's-lib movement, has gotten political. Flamboyantly absurd, Bug often plays like a satire of the lefty paranoia cinema that was big in Friedkin's heyday. Yet its psychological insights into mental illness remain acute; if nothing else, the penny-pinching director doesn't disparage the veteran head case whose bugged-out condition lends such post-traumatic ingenuity to the production. Halfway through, when the cheap-motel mise-en-scene begins to feel familiar, the vet -- convinced that an Army experiment has left him with tiny "rogue aphids" in his bloodstream -- proceeds to wrap the entire room in tinfoil. Presto -- a new movie set at Reynolds Wrap prices!
But Friedkin has fashioned Bug principally to be a showcase for actors. Connick's scenes with Shannon are precise studies in macho posturing, allowing Friedkin to imply that, for the heroine, the abusive ex-con isn't the only man she should fear. As for Judd, her persistent interest in working-class-female neurosis continues to be about more than trading the makeup kit for Oscar gold. Needing a man, any man, even a self-mutilating lunatic, her Agnes undergoes an insect-like metamorphosis, turning Bug itself into something of a love story.
Love? How will such mushy stuff fly with the core gore audience? Well, at a mere $4 mil, Bug makes what the kids think rather irrelevant, in turn making the film look like a triumph for the old New Hollywood. Friedkin's fellow '70s players wouldn't dare work at this neo-grindhouse level. Only with nothing left to lose will a heartbroken survivor -- like Agnes, like Friedkin -- be willing to get down and dirty.