The commitment of the actors runs in inverse ratio to the connection audiences will feel to "Bug." A ranting, claustrophobic drama that trades in shopworn paranoid notions, William Friedkin's overwrought screen version of Tracy Letts' play assaults the viewer with aggressive thesping and over-the-top notions of shocking incident, all to intensely alienating effect. With the action largely confined to one grungy motel room, unshakeable stage bound feel merely adds to the overall lack of appeal, leaving Lionsgate with an uncommercial pic that could only pull quick coin via a cynically misleading campaign emphasizing violence, gore and weirdness.
Adapted by Letts from his 2004 Off Broadway success, tale deals with marginal characters who, at the outset, are struggling just to make it day-to-day in a scrubby Western wasteland. Teetering on the edge of equilibrium, Agnes (Ashley Judd) lives in a grungy desert motel, tends bar at a raunchy watering hole with lesbian pal R.C. (Lynn Collins) and remains tormented by the long-ago disappearance of her young son.
Agnes' questionable stability is rocked by the abrupt return of her threatening ex Jerry (a gloweringly hunky Harry Connick Jr.), back from two years in the pen, but a young man who turns up with R.C. one day introduces an intriguing new element to her baleful life. Strange, subdued and insightful, Peter (Michael Shannon) just hangs around, with uncertain intent; admitting that "I'm not good for much" and claiming he has no interest in sex, Peter nevertheless has an aura about him, one initially enhanced by Shannon's offbeat performance.
The actor, who played the role onstage in New York and London, single-handedly sets a fresh rhythm for the piece with his unusual cadences and pregnant pauses, and his unfamiliarity as a screen presence heightens interest for a while.
But soon Peter is talking about a "bug" he contracted as a soldier in the Middle East, one he may have been deliberately given, and the drama quickly degenerates into a series of screaming matches devoted to lathered up paranoid delusions and emotional complicity between desperate souls at the end of their tether.
Peter, whose body gradually becomes covered with gruesome scratches and marks, insists that he has little bugs under his skin, and he soon has Agnes believing she does too; their motel room shortly comes to resemble an art installation covered in tin foil and festooned with insect-catching sticky strips.
The spectre of an insidious government (personified by Brian F. O'Byrne's medic) closing in on the wayward Peter eventually takes over both the story and the former soldier's mind, with results that send the actors into paroxysms of hysteria and causes the tin foil to be adorned with generous swatches of blood.
The driving obsessions with an evil military establishment, its secret medical experiments and the complicity of damaged souls are so old that they may have seemed new to the Off Broadway auds that made the show a hit. Friedkin pours endless energy into keeping the staging and camerawork vibrant, but the more he and the thesps press home the emotional urgency of the text, the more one is compelled to reject it, especially when some grotesquely gory incidents are introduced in the name of violent intensity.
The actors' devotion to their work here is manifest, even as it goes unrewarded due to the grandstanding level to which the performances uniformly pushed. Small-scale, close-ups-dominated pic looks sharp.
Camera (Technicolor), Michael Grady; editor, Darrin Navarro; music, Brian Tyler; music supervisor, Jay Faires; production designer, Franco Carbone; costume designer, Peggy Shnitzer; sound (Dolby), Jeffrey E. Haupt; supervising sound editor, Ron Eng; line producer, Jon Kuyper; assistant director, Michael Salven; casting, Bonnie Timmerman. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 17, 2006. Running time: 101 MIN.