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Getting the Bug

Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, and Harry Connick, Jr. star in the superb film version of the Off-Broadway hit. logo
Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in Bug
(© Lionsgate Films)
It's always the exception when a stage actor repeats a role in a stage to screen transfer -- just ask Julie Andrews or Harvey Fierstein. But in Bug, Academy Award-winning director William Friedkin's superb film version of Tracy Letts' award-winning play, Michael Shannon gets the chance of a lifetime in recreating the role of Peter, which he played in London, Chicago and New York. And he runs with it!

If ever there was a play that speaks to our conspiracy-theory driven times, it's Letts' virtuoso gothic tale of a pair of born losers and their paranoiac plunge into madness and conflagration. Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a coke-snorting, heavy drinking waitress while Peter (Shannon) is a damaged war veteran who may or may not have been the subject of government experimentation. That these two meet at all is part of the anti-romantic romance that Letts so poignantly sets up. Introduced as "harmless" by Agnes' lesbian bartending drug buddy R.C. (Lynn Collins), Peter begins what little initial conversation there is with a monotonal, "I'm not an ax murderer." He turns out to be something far worse.

Not known for psychological thrillers, much less low budget films, Friedkin has wisely maintained the play's claustrophobic one-room stage set, except for a few quick but necessary peeks at the bar, liquor store, and grocery store which comprise all of Agnes' outside world. There is truly nothing for her to lose when she throws in her lot with Peter.

In the play, Agnes was a worn out 40-year-old; on screen, she's a worn-out 30-something, convincingly played by the usually luscious Judd in a no-holds-barred, no make-up-worn performance. To avoid remembering how her young son disappeared one day in the supermarket, Agnes lives in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze. To avoid her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr., in a 180-degree turn from his work as Sid Sorokin in Broadway's The Pajama Game), Agnes lives in a broken-down motel on the outskirts of an unnamed Oklahoma town.

Agnes' history of co-dependency is personified by her relationship with Jerry, a tattooed, muscle-building ex-con, whom Connick portrays as a scary riff on the character Robert Mitchum created in Cape Fear. He's 'man' as both physical and psychological assault weapon. Jerry and Peter are polar opposites, which explains why Agnes becomes attracted to Peter's perceived gentleness and seeming lack of threat before she's sucked into his psychosis.

Peter believes the Army has injected a bug (a real one as well as the tracking/listening kind) into his body and that their love-making has released it. Before the film's incendiary conclusion, he and Agnes turn their motel room into a foil-covered hide-out filled with bug zappers, empty food containers, and their own palpable paranoia. Both actors are fearless, but Shannon's deceptively natural acting style raises the level of his performance from those early slow, almost monosyllabic grunts to page-long, frantically paced anti-government diatribes.

Tony winner Brian F. O'Byrne is wasted -- literally as well as figuratively -- in a cameo as a doctor who may or may not be from the nut house from which Peter may or may not have escaped. Collins, another highly regarded stage performer, fares only slightly better as the lesbian bartender.

Lionsgate has chosen to market Bug as a horror film, thanks in no small part to Shannon's shattering performance and gory Fly-like body makeup. But don't be fooled: Bug remains the inexorable descent into madness that Letts first set on fire onstage.

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