Bug Chaser

Nov 11 2014 | 01:35 AM

    Bug Directed by William Friedkin

    William Friedkin never evidenced social sympathy in any of his movie-movies. The French Connection was racist and pro-police at the dawn of Blaxploitation. The Exorcist was a Satanic freak show during the Jesus-freak era. Sorcerer remade the French Wages of Fear at the height of the 1970s American Renaissance. To Live and Die in L.A. was a high-tech crime drama opposite the new Indie movement. Rules of Engagement re-fought Operation Desert Storm during the Clinton years. Now, post-Borat, Friedkin makes his own Red State movie, the psychological freak show, Bug.

    Based on a stage play by Tracy Letts, Bug maintains its theatrical origins. It’s a stylized dramatization of American paranoia, portraying the slow-consciousness and consuming fear of the post-9/11 Heartland. Despite superficial “opening-out” exteriors, the story basically happens indoors; the roadside Oklahoma apartment of Agnes (Ashley Judd) becomes a physical and mental crucible or real and imagined anxieties. Politics are hinted at rather than discussed. It’s the same pressure-cooker environment that Friedkin-watchers will recognize from his earlier stage-adaptation movies, Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band. Neither film was exactly a social mirror; they were genre exercises for a young filmmaker. But in Bug, Friedkin uses his professionalism in the service of an extremely slanted social observation. It once again shows his detachment from fashion.

    Agnes is a bisexual barmaid trying to rebound from a bad relationship with a redneck (Harry Connick Jr.) when she meets a strange new man, ex-military veteran Peter (Michael Shannon). After anesthetizing herself with booze and quick sex, Agnes gradually comes to personal awareness. Out of combined self-pity and compassion, she shares Michael’s bizarre fixation that as the subject of a government experiment, he has had bugs planted beneath his skin. Playwright Letts’ distillation of government paranoia, cleverly reduces conspiracies from J. Edgar Hoover’s time to the current Patriot Act. Visiting Blue State hysteria upon a Red Stater shows a weird sympathy and Friedkin, as usual, is all about the freak-out.

    Agnes and Michael share a folie a deux that is also a modern American obsession. The more outrageous their fears, the more grotesque Friedkin visualizes the contemporary psychic state. As Agnes and Michael pick at themselves, their once smooth-skinned bodies become living corpses, full of sores, blemishes and the shakes. (They give flop-sweat performances that have been awesome on stage but on film are just … stagey.) It’s all very ugly in the Friedkin manner but then, upon reflection, the conceit reveals a certain rhetorical logic, and the horror show becomes expressive. Whether pro-Patriot Act or simply sympathetic-American, Friedkin has made the first movie to address the paranoia of our time—without flinching. His cinematic thesis recalls what French philosopher, Alain Finkielkraut, recently described as the “penitential narcissism that makes the West guilty of even that which victimizes it.” Bug is about the self-immolating fear and hatred that consume some Americans after 9/11. Friedkin offers a thoughtful, conservative balance to the liberal self-contempt in Eli Roth’s Hostel, the film he might have made when he was a naif.