An interviewer once asked Bob Dylan what he thought of the music of The Wallflowers, the rock band fronted by his son, Jakob. Ol' Bob's reply was startlingly transparent, but typically witty: "It's pretty good for what it is; it's just that what it is isn't very good."
In much the same way, Bug—directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist) and based on a stage play by Tracy Letts—is, by most accounts, a success. Certainly, when taken on its own terms, it accomplishes exactly what it seeks to accomplish, and it does so with exemplary craftsmanship and artfulness. As a film reviewer who happens to be a Christian, however, I can't help but wonder just how noble the film's goal is—or, to be more precise, how the film could be of any appeal to moviegoing believers.
Don't let the film's title and the jumpy trailers fool you; this is no horror film. Rather, it's a psychological thriller, a study of two characters slowly slipping into madness. It's claustrophobic—set almost entirely in a single motel room, true to its stage roots—and positively aching in its intense, slow-burn paranoia. It's unsettling, unnerving and, frankly, unpleasant, unrelenting in its darkness and oppressive in its dysfunction.
Those looking for scary monsters of Shyamalan-style jumps and surprises are out of luck, particularly in the first half. For an hour or so, the film crawls along at a laborious slow pace that's generally reserved for arthouse dramas. It builds either creepy tension or just plain tedium, depending your affinity for these kinds of movies.
Our protagonist, Agnes (Ashley Judd), is a waitress at a trashy lesbian honky-tonk, somewhere within the general proximity of nowhere. Her pastimes seem to include drinking and doing cocaine, occasionally partying with one of her co-workers (Lynn Collins).
Her life is quickly turned around by two men—one entering her world, the other re-entering it. Her husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.) is out on parole, and it's evident the moment he enters her motel room that he's still trouble. He's angry, controlling, and abusive, knocking her around a bit before storming off to "take care of some business" out of town. The other man, Peter (Michael Shannon, reprising his role from the stage play), is there to comfort and console her in the aftermath. Their relationship starts off as platonic, but quickly becomes physical.
That turns out to be a mistake. Peter is creepy from the get-go, but, after they sleep together, he quickly spirals downward. He makes ambiguous statements about people chasing him, and refuses to say more for fear of endangering Agnes. She's furious, and the two fight. Peter caves, and lets her in on his secret. It seems that he's on the run from the military; a former army man, Peter was the subject of some medical experiments gone horribly awry. Over the course of a few monologues, scattered throughout the film, we learn that Peter is exceedingly paranoid about being watched, about the dehumanizing effects of machinery, and about some tiny organisms—bugs—that he believes are living and breeding under his skin.
Friedkin and his actors slowly, painfully ratchet up the intensity. What starts with mere feelings of fear and claustrophobia quickly turns to sheer madness. The fear of these bugs—which may or may not really exist—completely overtakes Agnes and Peter, who start to behave in astonishing and horrifying ways. To say much more would be unfair to the film, but it should be said that there is one scene of self-mutilation that surely ranks among the scariest and grisliest ever filmed.
Friedkin's sense of pacing—and the nuance of the actors—makes the film an effectively squeamish, unsettling thriller. Many moviegoers will no doubt leave the theater feeling physically ill by the non-stop torment and insanity on the screen, by the sense of paranoia that is rendered so vividly as to be contagious. And this, one suspects, is precisely what the filmmakers intended—the movie seems made for the express purpose of disorienting its viewers, causing them to sink into discomfort and dread.
For Christian moviegoers, though, I can't help but question just how worthwhile such experiences can be. We are, after all, called to be lights in a world of darkness, to always be hopeful and joyful, even to exercise discernment, remembering that though all things are permitted, not all things are beneficial. And just how beneficial is it to spend two hours with such unrelenting, oppressive darkness? Arguments can be made for harrowing but hopeful films like Babel or The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada—films that point us to something redemptive even as they render powerfully the darkness of the human heart—but Bug is simply two hours of terror.Discussion starters
- What is the relationship between trust and fear? Do any of the characters in the film exhibit trust?
- Do you think the bugs are real, or are Peter and Agnes simply insane?
- What should be the Christian's response to this kind of dark, disturbing film? (See 1 Cor. 10:2)
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Bug is rated R for intense violence—including self-mutilation—and sex, nudity (both male and female), drug use, and plenty of swearing, including both four-letter words and blasphemous uses of God's name. It's unrelenting in its darkness and extremely violent. Keep the kids away—and unless you really go for this type of flick, perhaps yourself too. Read the last paragraph of the review above for further inisight.
Photos © Copyright Lionsgate
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.