Director Peter Bogdanovich has a theory that you can make almost any movie better by cutting the first 20-minutes off of it. Exposition is intended to set-up the background of the characters for the audience, but it usually just ends up slowing things down until the conflict eventually arises. After watching Bug, I would be willing to accept Bogdanovich’s argument, and double it.
Bug is the story of a down-on-her-luck waitress (Ashley Judd, doing her best impression of Charlize Theron from Monster) who lives in a cheap motel and works as a waitress in a honky tonk bar in Oklahoma. Her only friend comes by one night to party, and leaves a drifter behind when she leaves for the evening. The drifter turns out to be a pretty interesting character, though clearly of mysterious origins. The two form a quick bond, and as the drifter’s pre-existing mental illness starts to present itself, the waitress buys in to his delusions, with disastrous results.
Bug is a film based on a play of the same name, and I’ll bet it is a pretty good play at that. The problems with Bug are not with the basic story itself, but with the translation to film. The exposition here is not 20 minutes, but 50; the entire first half of the film is character introduction, before the first bug is discovered, and the plot finally kicks in. I have a guideline that I follow when I am watching movies for fun; if I am not at all interested in the film by the halfway point, I turn it off. If I had been watching this disc out of my own interest, I would never have made it to the dramatic finish.
If you can make it though the first half of the film, the second half is actually pretty interesting. It is a shame that the studio marketed it as a horror film, because that is not at all what is going on here. What is of interest is not the AWOL soldier that thinks the government is out to get him, but the hopeless waitress who convinces herself to join in his hallucinations, though deep down she clearly knows better. The film works an an allegory for domestic abuse, and shows how a woman can get to the point where she can confuse abuse and love. It doesn’t happen all at once, but it is a gradual progression over time that eventually leads to complete disaster.
The video here is also a little off, though I am absolutely certain that was done on purpose. The picture creates a beautiful contrast between the blue neon lights of the cheap motel’s sidewalks, and the drab brown interior of the room itself. Especially fascinating, while not giving too much away, is how those two colors switch places over time. Viewers should pay special attention to the wonderful shade of green used on the leaves of the trees. Director William Friedkin uses handheld cameras for the film, to create a sense of energy and frantic movement. In some scenes, this device is downright annoying, but as the film wears on, it starts to make perfect sense.
The audio track here is something of a mixed bag. Sounds are quite clear, but volume levels seem to be off. Basic background noises such as a ringing telephone or a mug landing on a countertop come across louder than much of the dialog. While this could certainly be a conscious choice by the filmmaker to create a mood, I don’t feel that it was the right choice. Foley should be about creating a realistic sound presentation that the story can unfold in, and that includes the volume levels.
The surround speakers are used quite well, however. As far as I could tell, the only sounds that came form the back of the room throughout the film were of various bugs, be they crickets, the buzzing of bees or the amplified march of thousands of nasty little swarming creatures. This was an interesting touch that helped to subliminally add that same sense of paranoia to the minds of viewers that the characters on the screen were experiencing.
There aren’t that many special features here, but what is included garners high marks in the quality department. Upon insertion, the disc begins with five trailers for various action and horror films, none of which look particularly noteworthy. “BUG: An Introduction” is essentially the film’s electronic press kit, but it includes a surprising amount of interesting information that you don’t normally find on these pieces. “A Discussion With William Friedkin” is another one of those segments that is usually filler on most discs, but it is actually a great segment here. Friedkin is a fascinating person, and he cuts no corners in answering the questions that are presented to him here. This piece runs a full 28-minutes, and I enjoyed every moment of it.
Likewise, the film’s “Director’s Commentary” is also a real gem, and may be worth renting the film on its own. Most Directors are notorious for not wanting to explain their “vision” for a film, but Friedkin has no problem with telling audiences exactly what he intends to convey to the audience in each shot. It is really refreshing to see (or hear) a director that is as interested in teaching an audience about his craft as he is creating the art itself.
There are lots of good things going on in this story, but this is a film that would have worked much better as a long short film. At first, I was put-off by the artificial sense of dread that is perpetrated in the first half of the piece, until I realized that this is a film about hyper-vigilance, and the ways in which we can make ordinary circumstances fit any insane situations we want to create in our own minds. It is a shame that the source material wasn’t developed more, but if you can make it to through the first half of the film, the pace really picks up on the back end, and the ending is to die for.