May 24, 2007

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Bug (R)
Ashley Judd starts up an itchy and scratchy romance with a twitchy solider in Bug, a moderately entertaining thriller at which some enterprising entrepreneur could make a killing in bug spray.

Because bugs boring into your skin? Ew.

Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a barely functioning member of society who works at a bar (where she drinks) and spends her free time drinking more and receiving hang-up calls that she assumes are from Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), her ex-con ex-husband who just recently became a free man. We eventually learn that she’s still getting over the loss of a child and that she’s not big on people. So when her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) brings over Peter (Michael Shannon) it’s kind of a surprise that broken wreck Agnes takes to him, despite his shifty serial killer eyes and uneasy quiet.

Peter is also surprised that they get along. He tells Agnes that he makes people nervous because he notices stuff. Stuff like how Agnes is sad and scared and how she’s just as skittery about sex as he is. Also, stuff like how he is the focus of a government conspiracy involving the military and bugs that have possibly been implanted under his skin.

Sure, we get to Peter’s full-blown crazy late in the movie but we can see it coming from the first time he swats at a bug he claims is on his arm. He slaps at bugs and itches and says he’s breaking out in welts but we suspect that he’s breaking out in self-inflicted scratches and soon he’s got Agnes seeing creepy crawlies as well. His stories grow more fantastic the bloodier he gets — from tales of going AWOL from a military hospital to stories about government-implanted transmitters that can be blocked by covering the walls of Agnes’ cheap hotel-room home in aluminum foil.

All of a sudden that abusive husband is looking like an island of sanity.

It’s kind of a dark joke of the movie that the man who we assume will be the villain turns out to be only a garden-variety jerk who, during one of his jealous explosions, actually tries to save Agnes from the far bigger danger of the creepy-eyed Peter. Agnes’ deep, painful sadness has left her cracked, her mind exposed to whatever crazy infection comes into contact with it. She goes from being sympathetic to Peter’s lunacy to being an enthusiastic participant — it is, she says at one point, the only thing she has. And, as bizarre as Peter’s strange alternate universe is, it is probably on some level less frightening than Agnes’ bleak reality.

Judd is able to more or less convey the deep grief and self-hatred of Agnes — we see more or less a real, troubled person. When the script pushes her further out into the deep end, however, we see less of the real person and more of a campy horror character, someone who is afraid of monsters even as she slowly turns into one. That sounds much deeper than it is and too often during this tension-filled movie I was tempted to laugh at her wild-eyed performance.

Still, Bug has some interesting pieces to its story (Jerry and his role in Agnes’ life; an unreliable point of view that slowly stops giving us real reality but instead gives us Agnes’ and Peter’s reality) and ultimately gives us no one to root for. I liked what it was trying to do and the way that its subject matter — delusional strangers, tiny bugs — is perfect for delivering frea- outs. But it didn’t freak me out nearly enough. Instead of the “oh God, what’s next?!?” that it was going for, the movie left me feeling more “oh, hum, what’s next?” C

Rated R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use. Directed by William Friedkin and written by Tracy Letts, Bug is an hour and 42 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.