Tracy Letts is a brilliant playwright, and the author of one of the greatest straight plays I have seen on Broadway (August: Osage County). He has an incredible knack for getting down to the raw, human emotions of his characters, and these characters become what his plays are about. In 2006, Letts adapted his play Bug into a screenplay of the same title, and legendary 70s director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) stepped in as director. With Letts writing and Friedkin directing, Bug should be a raving success, right?
Bug, as is characteristic of Letts, is a character study about two lonely people who happen to meet up at just the right time. Agnes (Ahsley Judd – Heat, Double Jeopardy) is a 40-something that lives in a motel room, alone, trying to make it one day at a time as a waitress at a local bar. One evening, her beautiful friend R.C. (Lynn Collins – X-Men Origins: Wolverine, True Blood, The Merchant of Venice) brings a stranger – Peter (Michael Shannon – Vanilla Sky, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II) – back to Agnes’ hotel room. Peter, a quiet guy, takes a liking to Agnes, and she reciprocates. R.C. leaves for a party, and Agnes invites Peter to stay the night. As Peter opens up, we discover that he is a war veteran who believes the government is performing tests on him. Once Peter finds a bug in Agnes’ bed, Peter begins to unravel this government conspiracy that he is certain exists.
There is some brilliant acting work by the four main roles in the film. Harry Connick Jr. enters the movie as Agnes’ ex-husband who was just released from prison, and not only will his Louisiana dialect melt the ladies, but his strong performance is equal parts mysterious and dangerous, making for an engaging character. Judd and Shannon are stellar as the leads, and the long shots of dialogue are wonderfully engaging to behold. The pair plays the paranoia (or not) expertly, and these two become scarier as the movie progresses. A lot of credit goes to these actors, but also to the incredible script by Tracy Letts. Hopefully Letts adapts more of his work to the big screen in the future (August: Osage County could be perfect Oscar fodder for any veteran actress).
As a character piece, Bug is extraordinary. As a full cinematic experience, there is something missing. The entire movie hangs on whether or not Agnes will accept the idea that there are bugs infesting the motel room. The second half of the film depends on this moment where Agnes decides to see the bugs, because if she doesn’t, she is either in denial and the film goes a different way, or kicks Peter out, and the film goes in a different way. Whichever her decision, this is a climactic moment in both Peter and Agnes’ character arcs. Egregiously, the film seems to skip over this part of the story. One moment Peter and Agnes are in bed together, then the next day, Agnes is slapping people, telling them to leave her and Peter alone. This shift is so dramatic that it can take the viewer out of the film, is a major oversight, and left me feeling cheated out of a couple of potentially brilliant scenes. I’m not sure if the writing is to blame, or the direction, but this hurts Bug a great deal.
A couple other aspects of note are the excellent set design and the special effects makeup work. As the character drop further into this paranoiac state, or as the bugs begin to take over more and more, the physical degradation of both the characters and their surroundings is stunning. The movie takes place almost entirely inside one motel room, but this one room is constantly changing, and therefore never gets stale (readers of my work will know I have an affinity for one location films, but this one does it better than most).
Bug is an excellent thriller that suffers from one crippling flaw: the audience is robbed of the character’s climax. The acting around this climactic moment, however, as well as Tracy Letts’ dialogue, are plenty enough reason to let Bug infect your mind.
Bug is available now on Comcast’s OnDemand service (in HD) thanks to FearNET.com.