Saturday, November 10, 2007

BUG - unforgettable, excruciating, unbelievably overlooked

Well, we're all from beaver, ain't we?Agnes is an alcoholic coke addict who hides from her abusive ex-husband in a seedy motel in an unspecified Southern state. The cine-literate will note her white-trash uniform: filthy wife-beater, greasy hair and cut-off jeans; abode: the sort of motel room that hides Psychos behind the shower curtain and voyeurs behind the air vents. Agnes drinks to mask a real, profound sorrow. She is retreating from life. When Peter appears, he seems almost too earnest...but in her loneliness, Agnes takes him in, relieved to find a companion by whom she is not threatened. These two form an unlikely bond despite the mocking, threatening visits from Agnes' ex. Agnes' desperation to have someone in her life, and to make sense of her grief, makes her pathetically susceptible to Peter's paranoid delusions of government conspiracy and experimentation.

If Agnes expresses our need to believe, even if we knowingly delude ourselves in that belief, then Peter is the extreme reaction of every sane, right-thinking human being to the travesties of justice and trust that we experience on a daily basis. Every time my government takes away a right I have had since Magna Carta; every time I bring home a DVD with an RFID chip; every second I inch closer to a compulsary ID card; my faith in the system is eroded. It may take severe mental illness to get to Peter's stage of paranoia and revulsion, but what makes his predicament so terrifying is that, on one level, I can sympathise with it. To that end, BUG is the movie that INVASION so desperately wanted to be - a perfect expression of angst in an era of twin fears; terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Tracy Letts' screenplay places these two characters in a claustrophobic motel room and watches them work each other up into a state of frenzied insanity. The trajectory is clear from the outset, but it is testament to the script and the performances that the audience is fascinated by their disintegration and fearful for them at every step. Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon are astonishingly raw in their roles as Agnes and Peter. The script and direction take them into the realms of the surreal. The movie flirts with a very black, dead-pan humour. Some of their actions and dialogue seems bizarre - maybe even laughable. But thanks to the conviction of their performances, the audience is not allowed to break the tension with a nervous laugh. Were it not for the extreme nature of the scenario and the fundamental cowardice of the voters, one could imagine both actors being nominated for Oscars. In smaller supporting roles, I was impressed by Harry Connick Junior who gives a very carefully modulated performance as Agnes' voluble but menacing ex-husband.

As for William Friedkin's direction and Michael Grady's photography, I can't praise them enough for managing to take the stock elements of a gothic horror and turn them into an entirely original, oppressive, psychological horror. A classic example of their art is the scene in which Agnes wakes up to find a fresh pot of coffee brewing. She takes a cup and wanders to the bathroom to thank Peter. The door opens and steam rolls out, elegantly obscuring a leaner torso thant we would expect from Peter. The head is obscured by steam, but the stance and voice are all wrong. Agnes' ex steps into the room and into the light. Her dream of a passive partner dissolves into the reality of a brutish husband. It's all so beautifully done

So, let us be clear. BUG is an amazing film. By turns emotionally engaging, excruciating to watch, impossibly to turn away from, frightening and fascinating. Why then, is it only playing on one small screen in the Odeon Panton Street in London? Why is there no publicity? Why was the screening near empty? This film has been done a great disservice by its distributors. This will no doubt fuel its status as Cult Movie of 2007.

BUG played Cannes, Toronto and London back in 2006 and Berlin 2007. It was released in France, the US, Turkey, Russia, Greece, Brazil and Thailand earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK. BUG is available on Region 1 DVD.

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