Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 16, 2006 8:47 am 
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Another play adaptation not to miss

The Exorcist’s William Friedkin makes a strong comeback directing Bug, the screen version, adapted by original playwright Tracy Letts, of his off-Broadway powerhouse about trailor trash paranoia that rocked the Village’s Barrow Street Theater two years ago. The Barrow Street Bug didn’t require any big names or high production values – the stage didn’t even have a curtain – for its startling effects. Twenty dollars got you an evening of strange thinking and unpredictable behavior. The NYTimes called it “the season’s wildest ride”; The New Yorker’s sketch suggested it was the best play in town. This time there are new faces, all fine, though they couldn’t be any better than the original stage cast. Here is Harry Connick Jr. playing Goss, a brute menace and an unwelcome surprise for Agnes (Ashley Judd, replacing Jessica Ferrarone in the original stage cast). Goss is Agnes’ ex, turning up unannounced after two years in stir.

This obviously wasn’t a play that needed a lot of opening up. Claustrophobia is one of its most essential elements. Friedkin wisely keeps his film version simple and boxed-in, adding sweaty closeups that show just how intense and brilliant the acting is, and just a couple of shots of other loicales.

Agnes resides in a sleazy motel room on the edge of the desert -- which is the play’s set -- and works in a bar with her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). In the film we get a glimpse of the crowded dive. We also see the motel from outside and above. Agnes, for whom life is an obvious struggle, is tormented by the loss of her little son, who disappeared years ago in a supermarket. Later R.C. brings an odd, seemingly recessive guy named Peter (Michael Shannon) whose gradually emerging story becomes the film’s/play’s focus. He claims to be a Gulf War veteran. A fifth character is a man who claims to be a doctor, played by Brian F. O'Byrne.

Bug is about process, and the process is Peter’s taking over of Agnes’ fragile mental and physical world and the destruction of his own in a compulsive, creepy, but somehow exhilerating display of sleazy folie à deux. The insects that he sees everywhere, inside and outside, parallel the contagion of his diseased mind, which sends out invisible tendrils that envelop Agnes. Letts’ astonishing dialogue metes out madness in gradually increasing doses. The fun is watching this happen and looking for transitions in the seamless and maniacally clever writing. Friedkin’s filming gives a kind of lunar, hallucinatory edge and the action’s intensity bursts from the screen. But all in all, nothing could outdo that evening at the Barrow Street Theater. It’s surprising that the whole thing works almost as well in a movie, but where it doesn’t, you realize that theater has certain powers found nowhere else.

The main US reviewers who check stuff out at Cannes and assess its commercial potential (Hollywood Reporter, Variety) think Bug is a bust. The title seems to remind them of Saw, and they judge this to be at best a cheap horror movie that can draw in an audience only through sensational trailers. That is shortsighted. Bug is horrific, but it’s mainly a psychological study, executed with a wildly audacious taste for theatrical surprise and an uncanny ability to calibrate progressive character revelation. Friedkin appears to have returned to his roots here in dealing with a play and handling it with a fine minimalism. It is true certainly that an unsophisticated audience may find Bug disappointing, or too talky. But its real audience is the savvy Barrows Street kind, art house folks not unfamiliar with Beckett, Pinter, or Sam Shepard.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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