Bug (2006): Friedkin Thriller Starring Ashley Judd

Cannes Film Fest 2006 (Market Premiere)–Vet director William Friedkin, still best known for his 1970s smash hits “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” experiences sort of a comeback with “Bug,” a noir psychological thriller tapping into new paranoia of the post 9/11 era. The film world-premiered at the 2006 Festival de Cannes in the Directors Fortnight section.

Based on Tracy Letts’s 2004 Off Broadway stage production, which ran for two years, “Bug” tries to maintain its theatrical intensity while at the same time open the play up with some cinematic tricks. Mostly set in the claustrophobic confines of a dilapidated motel room, this tense drama walks a fine line between a noir thriller and a trashy horror flick, veering toward the latter to some weird and unintentionally comic effects.

End result is a movie that begins well but escalates radically into a weirder and grosser B-movie as it goes along, reaching close to a dead end in the last reel, during which many viewers flee out of the screening room.

Lionsgate, which plans to release the movie around Christmas, should change the title, which is too literal on the one hand and too unappetizing on the other; the producers might want to encourage links to the “Fly” movies, though there is no comparison between the two films.

The first act, in which a despairing bar waitress (Ashley Judd) is alone in her room, trying to figure out who’s the anonymous caller who keeps disturbing her, builds healthy tension. For a while, you give the yarn, which is scripted by playwright Letts, the benefit of a doubt since it’s hard to predict what the next scene is going to be like, or where the story is going.

Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the three central characters are just updated variations of familiar types from noir thrillers. Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress stranded in the California desert, fearing the return of her former hot-tempered boyfriend Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) from prison. Having just begun an independent life of her own, Agnes works at the local bar, where she befriends, a smart, down-to-earth lesbian (Lynne Collins) with whom she parties, smokes dope, and relaxes.

Out of the blue, a bizarre misfit named Peter (Michael Shannon) invades her space, refusing to leave. A tall, awkwardly looking boy-man, Peter presents himself as an asexual drifter, claiming he is not interested in women or sex, though is not gay. Cursed with low self-esteem and unbearable loneliness, Agnes is a woman in need of male company, support, and even redemption. Desperate for human touch, Agnes and Peter begin a tentatively tender friendship that expectedly gains in trust and then just as predictably turns into a steamy sexual affair.

True to the piece’s theatrical origins, Letts stages a big volatile entrance for the loutish Jerry, after which the seemingly peaceful relationship between Agnes and Peter turns into a tense triangle with threats and counter-threats made by the men, vying for Agnes’s attention.

Changing gears, the yarn’s second half turns into an unbearable nightmare, when Peter reveals that he’s a war vet sought by the government. After a sexual intercourse, he becomes paranoid about a tiny bug that he detects on the sheets, forcing Agnes to turn her room upside down in search for bugs.

Tapping into post 9/11 collective fears, Peter’s nightmare may or may not concern the government, may or may not concern covert surveillance, and may or may not concern mysterious bugs that he claims burrow beneath his human skin, but no one else can see. Peter tells Agnes that the bugs are part of an Army experiment gone awry, and that his blood was infected with larvae in a V.A. hospital. Is Peter paranoid, delusional, or just wacko

Despite some stylistic flourishes and angular camera compositions, borrowed from the rich vocabulary of noir iconography, Friedkin is unable to successfully mix paranoid fantasy and dark comedy, and at times, the viewers’ laughter is unintentional. In one excruciatingly excessive scene, Jerry strips naked and mutilates himself in obsessive desperation to remove the bugs from under his skin.

The yarn benefits from the work a talented ensemble that shows commitment to the text even as they are increasingly defeated by it. Showing signs of natural aging, Judd is well cast as the victimized and vulnerable Agnes, a woman with a bad past trying to change her lot.

Looking fittingly weird, Michael Shannon is persuasive as the mysterious stranger, a wounded war vet who’s neither a boy nor a man. An awkward misfit, physically, Shannon is a cross between Tim Robbins in his weirdo roles (“AntiTrust” and recently in “War of the World”) and Tom Noonan’s bizarre characters in Sam Shepard’s plays (“Buried Child”).

Beefed up, Harry Connick Jr. is appropriately menacing as Agnes’ loutish, borderline psycho ex-boyfriend. As Agnes’ co-worker, Lynn Collins offers the only rational voice in the yarn, though no one is willing to listen to her.

It’s good to see Friedkin emerge from idleness and bad studio movies. In the film’s first half, he shows signs of savvy direction and technical expertise. Yet there’s nothing experimental in his approach, which mostly draws on established noir grammar, with heavy reliance on close-ups and distorted imagery of faces and objects. Hence, Friedkin should not be compared to Joel Schumacher, when he left his big and inane studio movies to make the innovative war drama “Tigerland.”

Thematically, “Bug” taps into the femme-driven sagas like “Safe” (1995), with Julianne Moore as a woman who gets paranoid as a result of sensitivity to some mysterious environmental disease, though Friedkin lacks the subtle and postmodern touch of a director like Todd Haynes.

Representing an uncomfortable combo of the woman-in-peril thriller (Ashley Judd’s specialty over the past decade) and an updated paranoia noir, “Bug” just gets weirder, bloodier, and grosser as it goes along. Be warned: By the end of the screening, half of the audience was gone.