The new William Friedkin (The Exorcist) movie is an outstanding piece of cinematic art. It is mind-blowingly apocalyptic, claustrophobic and bleak, and it kicks major buttocks. But if you’re going to see Bug expecting to see a lot of flesh eating insects devour the bourgeoisie, then you’ll probably be disappointed. If want to see a traditional horror movie, stay away. If you’re going to see it because you want to see a completely over-the-top, avant-garde, paranoid, 101 minute bad trip, then rush right out and get your ticket. This movie is one hell of a bad trip, and personally I love a beautifully executed cinematic bad trip more than just about anything. The monsters inside our own heads are certainly the coolest to watch on the screen.
Bug is a nightmarishly beautiful melding of those really bleak minimalist apocalyptic narratives (e.g. Zabriskie Point) and Bad Trip movies of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Except that Bug makes those movies look like Bambi as it wraps its claustrophobic fist around your neck and chokes the paranoia right into your veins. Bug locks you in a skanky hotel room with Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon for almost two hours, and the experience is one of feeling like you are inside the meth-infested brain of a tweaker while all the government agencies and surveillance equipment drill in on you. It is a two hour descent into a paranoid hell, and things weren’t looking too good when you began the trip in the first place.
Set in the middle of White Trash America (Oklahoma) Bug is an extended allegory of the society that America has become – a contaminated animal nourished on paranoia that's delivered straight into the bloodstream by every arm of the media. The terrorists are coming. SARS is coming. West Nile Virus is coming. Chemical warfare. Murderous poets. Illegal immigrants. Everything is out to get us. We must tighten security. Close our borders. Bear arms. Establish surveillance. The government is in the phones, in the television, in this computer screen you’re looking at right now. And this paranoia is bred by a government whose sole purpose is to maintain power and control. Infect its population with diseases and microchips. Establish a military to fight the terror and be its guinea pigs. All of these things and every other paranoid bad trip fascistic controlling infectious cell of the US government’s dehumanizing practices are contained in this 101 minute movie and confined to a trashy hotel room with a mere handful of characters. It is an amazingly suffocating and brutal portrait of middle America delivered with a clean, quick and undiluted punch.
Judging by Friedkin’s portrait, Middle America is one Bad Trip, and we are able to experience this Bad Trip in all its visceral horror through some pretty excellent filmmaking. The sets, sound editing and photography are sublime. The whir of a ceiling fan, clink of ice cubes in a glass, crinkle of aluminum foil are stars in this movie. And the movie cinematically builds into a whirring vortex of insanity that is just horrifically beautiful. Speaking of stars, Ashley Judd’s dirty, greasy, flabby body is perfect trailer trash as she chews on her fingers, opens her legs, and gives her body and mind over to the contagion. But the real show stealer is Michael Shannon as Peter Evans. He is 100% creepy, freaky, weird, icky, and sick. And we see way too much of his weird naked body to make us comfortable. Besides being the “carrier” of the contagion, Peter’s character also brings into play America’s diseased form of Christianity (he is the son of a preacher) and the US military’s history of invading the Middle East and its chemical and biological experiments on its own soldiers (he is a veteran of the Gulf War). So besides providing one heck of a creepy freak guy, Peter also brings political relevance to the fore.
No surprise that the last time this kind of movie played in the multiplex was during the Vietnam War, another time in history when US imperialism unleashed its toxic bacteria upon the world, not unlike what we are witnessing today in Iraq, the propagation of the myth of terror, and the raping of our civil liberties through government surveillance. The tension in this movie articulates the tension we feel everyday we live and breathe in this country that is pillaging the world and contaminating its own citizens with its lies and betrayals. Being holed up in the motel with the paranoid tweakers is the way I feel when I’m driving down Oracle Road and being squeezed in by four white trucks bearing American flags and Jesus fish as they tailgate me and try to terrorize me off the road. The apocalyptic paranoid bad trip genre is nothing if not political, so don’t let Bug’s bare bones simplicity fool you. We the people are the body politic, and as such our bodies are infected with the contagion that is our government.
Oops, I digress into a rant. (See what happens when I write about Bug when I have a bug?) What makes Bug truly a great film is that its politics are not particularly overt. Bug is bleak, minimalist, claustrophobic, and extreme, but unlike 28 Weeks Later, Bug does not blatantly hammer its politics into your head. It does make you stop and ask, "What the fuck?" And when you answer that question, you realize that Bug is the cultural product of a society plagued with paranoia, but the politics are distilled into what is ultimately a pretty damn avant-garde and extreme piece of cinema (which is why it is better than 28 Weeks Later and much more akin to 28 Days Later). I don’t imagine Bug is going to be around very long, so if you’re interested I would go see it right now. Three people walked out when I saw it. People don’t usually take too favorably to watching the ugliness that is themselves. On the other hand, all politics aside, this movie really just makes you feel like you’ve spent almost two hours with Tweakers From Hell. It could very well be the most accurate depiction of fucked up crankheads ever. But its Tweakers As Art because above all else, this movie and its meticulous attention to detail is art of the most beautifully apocalyptic variety. Like The Exorcist, Bug is a possession narrative but instead of being possessed by the Devil (a.k.a. female sexuality) we are possessed by the media and the government that have created a society that feeds and breeds paranoia. Bug blew me away.