Studios consider translating a play to film a dicy, generally lose-lose proposition. Actor-friendly material isn't enough to compsensate for all that talking, a dearth of exciting locales, and intellectual tonality. From an artistic standpoint, if the script is strong enough, nothing should stop a filmmaker from adapting a play. And indeed, nothing could stop William Friedkin (The Exorcist, but what have you done for us lately?) from adapting Tracy Letts' Bug. But is the source worthy?
Letts, a Steppenwolf Theatre Company member, has arguably built his reputation as a playwright on shock value: nudity, violence, and mad-scientist plotting. Bug fits the bill, with its story of Agnes (Ashley Judd) a broken woman living out of the seedy Rustic Motel. Fearful that her newly released ex-con husband (Harry Connick Jr.) is on the way to resume his spousal abuse, Agnes allows her lesbian gal pal R.C. (Lynn Collins) to set her up with a presumably less-harmful (watch)man. His name is Peter (Michael Shannon), and he's an Army veteran with his own sob-story of damage, the result of experimental treatments. Or so he says.
Letts rolls out his characters with tangy, overlapping dialogue and dread, emergent memories. But the energy and inherent restraints of the stage (like distance) serve the play in ways that Friedkin's film either can't capture or purposefully reverses. Friedkin allows the dialogue to get sluggish and sometimes laughably deadpan. Worse, for reasons I should't explain, there's substantially less ambiguity on film as to the film's central question: is Peter paranoid, or is the government really out to get him with burrowing insects? This little problem irreparably saps the play's greatest strength: dramatic tension. Instead, Friedkin dials up the visceral impact of perverse physical affliction and intent, head-rattling sound effects (the motel room is a psych test of phones, fire alarms, and A/C machinery).
As far as those go, Bug can be effective, and the performers do their darnedest to milk the material. A dressed-down Judd lands credibility to the sketchy traumas by which she's meant to be haunted (one involves a long-lost family member), and nails a climactic monologue. Shannon—reprising his Off-Broadway role—regulates an intensity that ranges from skipped-beat odd to manic schizophrenic. The problem with Bug in its film incarnation is the abrupt transition between its two halves (spackled on stage by an intermission lag). Peter boils over into psychosis and Agnes goes over the deep end with him far too readily and quickly, especially in close-up cinema.
At its most unsettling, Bug suggests that madness—whether it be institutional or personal—is contagious. The concept proves true of the characters to each other but also the filmmakers to the audience. Usually mental projections on film are visual, but in Letts and Friedkin's hands, they are aural. Are the sounds of children playing and hovering helicopters ambient reality or only in an infected mind's ear? Are the characters crazy or is the movie? The late arrival of a character played by Tony-winning actor Brian F. O'Byrne ups the ante while attempting to keep the audience guessing.
It's also true that Bug tells a demented "Only You" love story—these two dysfunctional people are made for each other alone. A psychological study and not a horror movie, Bug may lose much of its audience before it delivers the goods, but its brutal mental and physical outbursts will likely remain the most grueling screen scenes of 2007. If that's your cup of tea, queue up, but for my money, Letts only surface-scratches his itch for thematic relevance. It's a shame Bug isn't more than it cracks up to be.