(epix/VOD) One of the few screenings I was able to catch last year before lockdown was a special 35mm screening of William Friedkin’s BUG, featuring actor Michael Shannon and writer Tracy Letts for a post-film discussion. Before both became relatively big names, they worked together on Letts’ lurid, often horrific, small town stage plays, such as BUG and KILLER JOE. Both film adaptations arguably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Friedkin as, according to Letts, Friedkin hounded him to adapt BUG after seeing it on the stage, and Friedkin also volunteered to take on KILLER JOE, requiring that Letts write the screenplay for each film.
A quick summary: Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a troubled waitress who works at a gay bar in a small Oklahoma town who drinks and snorts away her loneliness. One night she meets a fresh face, Peter (Michael Shannon), who reluctantly says he’s a freshly discharged solider. The two get to bonding, and before long he’s crashing in her ramshackle hotel room. What follows is an expertly balanced grimy, disturbing tale about abuse, paranoia, mental illness, and co-dependence.
While I’d previously seen BUG a few times via DVD, and several weeks later I’d attend a production of it at Steppenwolf — Letts and wife Carrie Coon are members, and Coon played Agnes in that production — nothing compares to seeing a print of it in a sold out theater full of fans and fans who dragged their unknowing friends to it.
Friedkin ramps up the claustrophobia, leans more on the characters’ perspectives, and tightens the screws with some manic editing and montage work, making it far more effective on a big screen than viewing at home. Also, when watching a film as gonzo as BUG, the audience’s emotions roil through the theater, amplifying some of the more absurd moments the film throws at you. At the screening, after a particularly confusing array of images and sound that are followed by relative silence, someone simply shouted out ‘WHAT THE FUCK’ and the theater burst out laughing because how the hell else do you react to BUG?
Sadly, chances to view BUG under my 2020 conditions don’t roll around too often, so don’t wait as it plays just as fucked up on a small screen. Arguably, thanks to being in lockdown, the horror of it may play more effectively when one watches at home after a year of lockdown.
There’s a trailer and, while it doesn’t ruin anything exactly, it’s best to go in knowing as little as possible.