Friday, 28 September 2007

review: bug (william friedkin, 2006)

The phenomenon of films marketed as something they clearly aren't is not a new one, but Bug, a character-driven psychological drama advertised as a horror film, presents a particularly extreme example. The manifest result, as is often the case, was a large portion of its audience leaving the cinema disappointed, not having gotten what they were expecting - and, subsequently, an underwhelming critical and commercial performance. Which is a shame, as Bug, while far from a masterpiece, is an engaging oddity, an insidiously disturbing, frequently horrific depiction of a couple's rapid descent into paranoia.

Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress living in a run-down motel apartment seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Terrorized by her abusive ex-husband, who has just been released from prison, Agnes starts a relationship with Peter (Michael Shannon), a mysterious but seemingly kind-hearted stranger she is introduced to by a friend.

Agnes and Peter are both profoundly lonely people, retreating into claustrophobically solitary inner lives to escape a world that has treated them particularly harshly, and that they fear. Both speak in introverted near-mumbles and are initially unwilling to open themselves up to others; yet it is this same desperate loneliness that ultimately draws them to each other. This proves to be disastrous - wrapped up in each other and the world they create, they retreat further and further from reality, the increasing trust they place in each other seemingly fueling a corresponding mistrust of anything and anyone outside their narrow sphere.

The film's unique power stems from its intermeshing of its main themes - loneliness, love and paranoia. The bleak vision it presents is one in which an individual is defined by their fears and the little mental and physical enclaves they create to hide from a terrifying and incomprehensible world; where love is a desperate clutching at straws and leads only to a sharing and subsequent amplification of neuroses; where everything, from the whirring of an electric fan to the arrival of a pizza delivery man, sparks off a burst of irrational terror.

William Friedkin's output has been decidedly mixed, but he is on top form here, decking out the simple, one-location set-up with swooping aerial shots, montage sequences, long dissolves and inventive sound design, emphasizing the claustrophobia while also hinting at the protagonists' fracturing mental states. Nonetheless, the story's theatrical origins shine through all too clearly in places. The problem isn't really the story's restricted canvas (five speaking roles and virtually only one location), which is thematically integral. The script itself, however, occasionally sounds stilted, unnatural and overplayed, the themes just slightly over-emphasized and the narrative's overall shape just slightly too schematic to be entirely convincing.

As the film approaches its climax, then, it occasionally alternates (or my perception of it varied) between a genuine, intense psychological horror and farcically self-conscious pretention. Perhaps I am overstating this - these doubts are never more than momentary, and for the most part the film succeeds resoundingly. If it is a little too narrow and blinkeredly bleak in its vision to ever qualify as a Great Film (like Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream (2000), but perhaps even more so, this is a world where nothing good or beautiful can exist except ephemerally), it certainly executes its vision with intensity and focus, resulting, for all its flaws, in a chilling and disquieting horror-drama that will not be easily forgotten.

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