There is no point in delaying the inevitable conclusion. Bug is a difficult film. It is cinematic art at its narrowest. This is the kind of movie that art house/Indie fundamentals are based on. Under no circumstances will Bug ever find a wide audience. This isn’t because William Friedkin’s latest is above the heads of the masses. Nor is it because people are going to go in expecting the Exorcist and instead receive something that barely qualifies as a horror movie. The issue is not whether someone will understand Bug; one will simply either connect with the film or they will not. If the opening elements of Tracy Lett’s intricate characters and story do not resonate with you, then Bug will surely be nothing but a headache even once the bug/insanity element enters play. A disconnect between viewer and poor, abused, drug-addled, depressed, hopeless characters does not indicate any kind of failure on behalf of the viewer. If, however, you’re in the minority vulnerable enough to let its subtle talons sink in, the cut will surely be deep.
Regardless of the far-out nature of the film’s story, the characters in Bug are painfully real. The manner in which William Friedkin approaches the material is painfully real. Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon) represent the majority of lonely souls in America and because of how damned accurate they are the entire film is painfully real. This is a behind-closed-doors story that could very possibly happen – if it isn’t already happening in some motel in the Midwest as these very words are being read. The experience of watching it unfold honestly made me sick to my stomach.
Bug is neither a Hollywood nor horror film. It is an unnerving work that does exactly what the titular villains do; burrow into your skin and start crawling. Just as it is destined to be seldom heard of in the conversations of every day folk, Bug is destined to be a point of reference within the film community for its performances alone. It does not matter how many viewers receive nothing from the movie’s story or characters, the power of these performances cannot be denied.
The jump in Ashley Judd’s game from every role prior to the level she is at in Bug is astounding. Perhaps the actress always played relatively stock characters and all it took was the mind boggling highs and lows of Aggie for her to really sink her teeth in, but Christ does she give it her all here. Michael Shannon played Peter in the stage adaptation, so the praise for his turn here likely won’t be as widespread as Judd’s, but the man can chew the slow burn of neuorsis like nobody’s business. The supporting cast, all 3 of them, earn their screen time as well. Who knew Harry Connick Jr. could play a scumbag so vividly.
Friedkin knew exactly what kind of a film he wanted to make. He knew exactly what shots to go for, what cues to give the excellent sound department, and how to drive his actors to career highs. What further contributes to the film’s difficult reception is Lions Gate’s marketing department banking on the Exorcist pedigree. The two films could not be farther apart in execution. That excellent trailer is marketing deception at its best for those genre aspects of the story do not fully bloom until the final quarter. Expecting a straight horror film will only kill the experience. But – and this is a big BUT – that last quarter will have you glued to the screen.
Yet, even with all the movie’s soaring elements, Bug is still a difficult recommendation. Smart money says if you’re Average Joe, you’re going to loathe those 102 minutes. And I don’t blame you. I can sing praise of the film’s truly artistic merits all day long, but at the end of the day the truth is I won’t be returning to Bug any time soon. I don’t like having my emotions punched in the gut. I may watch a mighty amount of horror, but I don’t enjoy watching desperate people cling to life when the definition of living has lost all reason. Especially when it is this honest. But as a critic, or at the very least, an objective viewer, all hats must be tipped to William Friedkin. Bug is an accomplishment I don’t think anyone was expecting.
Which is, apparently, also the problem.