boston.com Arts and Entertainment your connection to The Boston Globe
MOVIE REVIEW

A horror flick/love story, with insects -- maybe

The love in "Bug" should not be tried at home. It shouldn't be tried anywhere, really, unless you happen to be one of the trained professionals involved in William Friedkin's engrossingly manic version of Tracy Letts's great stage play. And even then, I'd opt for something less flammable.

It's an oddball romantic drama that descends into comic horror and delivers Ashley Judd at full neurotic tilt (a new angle for her). Lionsgate , which brought us the "Saw" series and "Hostel," is the distributor. Despite the stabbings, amateur dentistry, and worse (yes, worse), "Bug" might throw the average horror fan for a loop with its patient escalation and long conversations. Still it's a surprising, intelligent addition to the studio's sadomasochistic collection.

Judd plays Agnes , a sweaty, coke-snorting woman cooped up in an Oklahoma motel room, where most of the movie is set. Agnes has a problem with her phone. It won't stop ringing. But whoever's at the other end doesn't say anything. She assumes it's her abusive jailbird ex. One drug-fueled evening, Agnes's lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins ) deposits a stranger at Agnes's dingy hovel. He's a tall, wide-faced creature named Peter (Michael Shannon ).

At first, Peter doesn't say a whole lot. He's simply imposing in a way that's sweet and the littlest bit scary. This is, in part, because Peter -- especially when he holds a lamp too close to his face -- looks a lot like young Christopher Walken . It's a resemblance that promises the bizarre. And Peter doesn't disappoint, explaining his uncanny ability to make people nervous: "I pick up things unapparent."

He picks up the sound of a cricket chirping in Agnes's room, for starters. Then he picks up Agnes's willingness to hear it, too.

Were the chirps just her smoke alarm? It barely matters. Suffering a void in her life, she's open to hearing and seeing whatever else he might think he hears and sees. This includes the aphid he swears has bitten him after they make love. Friedkin films the sex like something out of a nature special, with nipples, legs, smalls of the back, and other areas ambiguously arched and spread. In case we've missed the connection, he's redundantly thrown in a scare-shot of an insect at the end of his steamy montage.

That bite in her bed turns into an obsessive search for more bugs, then more bites, both of which Agnes says she sees. Does she see them because they're really there? Does she see them because she's high? Does she see them because she's empathizing with the increasingly unhinged Peter, who basically moves in?

Once she starts peering through his little microscope and hearing his tales of conspiratorial medical-military experimentation, it's too late. Her apartment becomes decorated in nasty flytraps and electric zappers and fogged with bug spray.

If little about Agnes and Peter's perception seems real, their paranoid attraction totally is, and the experience of watching this man burrow deep under this woman's skin (physically and psychologically) is what gives "Bug" its delirious kick. The scratching, the manipulation, the queasy self-mutilation: Not since Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher" has the line between besotted and nuts been so hard to glean.

Letts , who adapted "Bug" himself, has what can best be called a sick sense of humor and compelling way with the darker recesses of human nature. His writing here allows the plausible and the absurd to seem so indistinguishable that it doesn't matter which is which.

The movie works as a byproduct of our current climate of suspicious secrecy and wartime post - traumatic stress. But it's probably better appreciated as a work about intense infatuation where desperate feelings are dragged out into the theatrical open. In the last 20 minutes, production designer Franco-Giacomo Carbone even transforms Agnes's motel room into an exaggerated outgrowth of the characters' recreational obsessions. The place is covered in so much foil and colored with such frying neon light that it looks like a bug zapper for freebasers.

Some of Friedkin's attempts to break the movie out its single setting (that sex montage, needless aerial shots of a helicopter's approach toward the motel) are crude. Letts's writing doesn't lend itself to that kind of visual explication: the symbols speak for themselves. Still, it's been over 20 years since the director's filmmaking has been this convincing. Like "The Exorcist ," which Friedkin made in 1973 at the top of his commercial powers, "Bug" is another viscerally draining tale of possession.

And directing the possessed, Friedkin is in his element. This cast is small, and it's very good, including Harry Connick Jr. as Agnes's greasy husband and Brian F. O'Byrne , who briefly adds further mystery to the proceedings.

Shannon and Judd luxuriate in codependent frenzy. He had a small but memorable part as a scarily patriotic marine in "World Trade Center ," and originated the role of Peter on the New York stage. He finds a core of sadness within Peter's mania, making the character just vulnerable enough for us to get why Agnes would want to abet his madness.

Meanwhile, Judd does wounded, needy, frazzled, grimy, and stupid with a crackle her acting has lacked. For once, it's her emotional nakedness that's exciting. Having bared so much of her body, she finally seems eager to bare some of her soul.

She and Shannon seem to know they're playing something simultaneously ridiculous and emotionally for-real. "Bug" is funny and thrilling. The comedy and horror are boiled together, and the fatalistic result might be tragedy, sure. But it's a gonzo kind you can laugh at.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com /ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Bug

Directed by: William Friedkin

Written by: Tracy Letts, adapted from his play

Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins, Brian F. O'Byrne

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 100 minutes

Rated R: (some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use)

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES