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Originally published May 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 25, 2007 at 2:00 AM

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Movie review

Scratch the surface: "Bug" is no splatter film

The misleading marketing of "Bug" would have you believe this surprisingly effective psycho thriller is a gore fest of unrelenting horror...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars


"Bug," with Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne. Directed by William Friedkin,

from a screenplay by Tracy Letts. 102 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use. Several theaters.

The misleading marketing of "Bug" would have you believe this surprisingly effective psycho thriller is a gore fest of unrelenting horror. There are creeps aplenty, but the fright factor is downplayed in favor of a harrowing ratchet in mood that descends from normalcy to madness. Bugs abound — but in the brain, not the blood.

On the lonely Oklahoma prairie, Agnes (Ashley Judd) lounges about a dilapidated motel room chugging vodka and snorting coke. She works at a local watering hole where her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) tries to distract her messed-up soul from pains new and old.

Judd is a wonderfully haggard presence, both slovenly and sexy as she carries the ghost of a child who disappeared years ago. She's also deluded herself into thinking she can "take care of herself" against a predatory ex-husband, the newly paroled Goss. We've never seen Harry Connick Jr. so truly scary as this steely-eyed psychopath.

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes

"Bug," with Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne. Directed by William Friedkin, from a screenplay by Tracy Letts.

102 minutes. Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use.

Her delusions take stronger root when a stranger from the bar enters her life with an array of enigmatic answers to questions she's long been suppressing. His name is Peter (Michael Shannon), a weary innocent and Gulf War vet whose haunted demeanor draws her in.

Claustrophobic, paranoiac and loaded with delicious atmospheric detail, "Bug" is also notable as a sharp notch in director William Friedkin's varied oeuvre. It can't rank among his landmarks ("The French Connection," The Exorcist"), but it certainly is a return to his personal style of visual elegance and penchant for edgy emotional manipulation.

Screenwriter Tracy Letts refigured the movie from his play, which had successful runs in London and Off Broadway a few years ago. He and Friedkin do little to "open up" the drama, which would probably have been a mistake anyway. The crusty, bedraggled motel room that transmutes in tandem with the emotional intensity ultimately becomes an eerie foil-shrouded space capsule for Agnes and Peter. In it their bodies also become horribly disfigured by the "bug" Peter carries within him.

Peter's weird serenity takes wild turns as his own delusions leap through hilariously histrionic conspiracy theories that make the fantastical physical. Those bugs are all in his head, aren't they? In a small but pivotal role, the terrific Irish actor Brian O'Byrne shows up as Peter's nemesis, Dr. Sweet, a mysterious "consultant" who gives Agnes plenty more to feed her wrecked mind.

Shannon reprises the role he created on stage. In New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley's review, he accurately notes the increasing layers of agitation and tics that cloud Peter's consciousness as his calm increases volume, saying, "When Peter finally raises his voice, it's a big deal."

"Bug" may not be a big deal, but it is a sublime and remarkably disturbing small deal that pays and demands close attention, even down to the meticulous sound mix, which may leave you itching and scratching all the way home.

Ted Fry: tedfry@hotmail.com

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