Paranoia is contagious.
Absolutely goddamned right.
Bug, the 2006 movie from William Friedkin, dives into paranoia like the films of my childhood. It deserves a spot on the shelf next to classic paranoia films of the 70’s like The Conversation, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, Capricorn One, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Marathon Man, and The China Syndrome. Moving into the 80’s, we’ve got to add in the 1981 Brian De Palma classic Blowout. I grew up watching these films on TV, probably too young to really even comprehend some of the overreaching conspiracy theories being presented. But I loved them all. The idea that the agencies supposedly there to protect us could be nefarious and hiding their own crimes fascinated me. Most of these films also have an ambiguous, or decidedly depressing ending. As a kid, I was used to the Hollywood movies where the good guys always won out and the bad guys didn’t get away with it. Not so with 70’s conspiracy cinema. To quote another of my favorite films, Katherine Bigelow’s 1995 movie Strange Days, “The issue’s not whether you’re paranoid, Lenny, I mean look at this shit, the issue is whether you’re paranoid enough.”
I absolutely love William Friedkin. While he admittedly has some failures, when he is great he is the best. My favorite horror film ever made is The Exorcist (1973). This is the titan among horror films that has lost none of its power to disturb and rattle the viewer. I also love his tense adventure film Sorcerer (1977). This remake of Wages of Fear is gritty and mesmerizing. Had it not come out within 2 weeks of a little sci-fi film called Star Wars, it would have done much better at the box office and received more acclaim. The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die (1985) set the tone and the high mark for realistic police dramas. These four movies are my top Friedkin films. His early career in making documentaries helped give him a detailed realism to his all of his subsequent films. I love watching the interviews with him and listening to the director’s commentaries. He is a fascinating subject. Hell, I even love the way he speaks. His cadence, his accent, the way he delivers his stories to us. I also highly recommend reading his autobiography, The Friedkin Connection: A Memoir.
I’m now adding Bug to this ranking of my top Friedkin movies. This film is somewhat of a departure for Friedkin. Instead of the stunning location shooting he did in Sorcerer and his other films, he is relegated to filming this entire movie in one small seedy hotel room. It looks and feels like a play because it is indeed based on a play. Michael Shannon portrayed the lead character in the play for years, and was the perfect person to play this character in the film. The playwright himself, Tracy Letts, adapted his play for the screen. Choosing unique shots and framing and utilizing removable walls in the hotel room enabled Friedkin to make a potentially boring shoot into a riveting and engaging psychodrama.
Friedkin is an absolute master of sound design. This element of using sound cues really struck me hard on this viewing. He builds the tension and the creepiness with very subtle sound effects. He created a bizarre sound effect for the air conditioner that sounds like no air conditioner I’ve ever heard before. But it works to add dread and constant agitation for the viewer. He uses the sounds of the cicadas outside, dripping faucets, helicopters, and in one scene, a beeping smoke detector that sounds just like a cricket chirping. There is a dramatic scene where Ashley Judd tells the story of losing her child in a grocery store. Friedkin doesn’t cut away to any flashback, instead he places a subtle sound cue of children playing on a playground as she speaks. I love when directors use actual sounds in the scene for the soundtrack instead of orchestral music.
The cast is great. It is essentially a two person play with a grand total of 5 actors. Ashley Judd is always great, and she completely inhabited this character. Michael Shannon is perfect and you can’t take your eyes off of him. His eccentric performance reminded me of Anthony Perkin’s Norman Bates in Psycho. Full of odd quirks and different ways of saying things. There is a certain innocence and child-like honesty to his character. And casting Harry Connick Jr. as the bad guy was a genius choice. This goes against type the same way that casting Keanu Reeves as the bad guy in The Gift worked. And it gives the actors opportunity to shine in a role you don’t expect them to take. I believed that all three of these actors were the characters they were portraying. Actors always love the opportunity to go through a substantial character arc, or go batshit crazy. This film is an actor’s dream come true. They also filmed in chronological order, which is unusual in feature films. But with a small set that they could control they didn’t have to rely on the weather, matching the light, or daytime vs. nighttime shoots.
Michael Shannon describes the movie as a love story between two intensely damaged individuals. These people are both haunted and already pretty desperate. The movie definitely drops you directly into the lives of two lost people who end up needing each other and overlooking the various red flags and idiosyncracies. They then feed off each other’s descent into paranoia, fear, and self-destruction.
Some of my favorite dialogue in the movie is where Ashley Judd asks Michael Shannon why he hasn’t been with a woman in years. His response is sublime:
“I just decided it wasn’t worth it anymore.
You have a center, right? A place inside of you that’s just you, that hasn’t been spoiled. And I think it’s really important to try and keep that space sacred. In some sense, on some level, but sex or relationships cloud that space… or they cloud me I guess, and make it difficult to be just me and not have to worry about… being somebody else.”
There is a sweet love scene in the film that Freidkin adds some horrific touches to. As the two main characters make love he puts in an almost subliminal shot of squirming maggots or grubs chittering in the background. As the two lovers climax the scene is punctuated by a sped-up shot of an insect crawling out of its egg sac. A startling musical screech accompanies a close-up of a praying mantis head looking into the camera.
Without giving too much away, the film follows the characters as they become more and more paranoid, imagining bugs in the hotel, helicopters surveilling them, and disturbing government experiments. Similar to another favorite film of mine, 1990’s Jacob’s Ladder, you don’t know if the characters are suffering hallucinations from trauma, drugs, experiments, or mental illness like Schizophrenia. Shannon is a drifter who at times appears Autistic, antisocial, withdrawn, or paranoid schizophrenic. Judd is a survivor of trauma, abuse, and great loss who also has a hefty drug problem. They both spiral down the path of paranoia, isolation, and delusion. There are many interpretations that Friedkin leaves ambiguous. The group hallucinations could simply be a cocaine-induced psychosis, as numerous shots of cocaine and glass crack pipes are shown. Marijuana and meth can also certainly cause paranoia. The stories Shannon tells about military experiments and governmental collusion could actually be true. Shannon could just be a paranoid schizophrenic imagining these conspiracies and convincing Judd to go along with him. Or the bugs that are so feared are really nanotechnology inserts. Not biological insects at all, but microscopic computer tracking devices from the CIA. The word bug can mean insect or listening device.
Friedkin gives us some great subtle visual cues as well. The outdoor flourescent lights of the hotel look distinctly like bug zapper lights. In one scene the shadow from a shower curtain on Shannon’s back makes little patterns that look like spiders. Near the end of the film they cover everything in their hotel room with tin foil. The only light sources are the blue bug zapper lanterns they have bought, and some candles. The cold blue palette is distinctive and surreal. The opening shot is a slow helicopter zoom in on the cheap hotel. It shows us the isolation, the country road, and the aqueduct behind it. It is shot and filtered in such way that it makes you think of bloodstreams and corpuscles. Genius.
One of my favorite shots has to be the homage to Apocalypse Now. Francis Ford Coppola’s classic 1979 Vietnam War film starts with shots of Martin Sheen laying on his hotel bed looking up at the ceiling fan. He imagines hearing helicopter rotors as he zones out on the fan blades. In Bug, Friedkin has Harry Connick Jr. lay down on the hotel bed in exactly the same way. The camera is up at the ceiling looking down at him in what filmmakers call the God’s eye view. We look straight down through the moving fan blades at the upside down face of the character.
“The horror…..the horror.”
This movie suffered a bit from it being incorrectly promoted. All the press and posters called it a horror movie. They all referenced The Exorcist. I even fell into that trap of expecting a horror movie about bug infestations from the master of horror, William Friedkin. I didn’t even like this movie when I first saw it. It isn’t a horror movie at all. It is a drama. A psychological thriller even. Or best called a psychodrama. It’s a slow burn for the first hour as it builds and builds, and then the final half hour goes batshit crazy. If you go into this movie just expecting an intense drama based on a play, then you will be so happily surprised. Just don’t go into it expecting The Exorcist where the people are possessed by bugs instead of demons.