Tracy Letts' Bug has been scuttling around stages for years now, first in Chicago, then London, then onto off Broadway, where it cocooned at the Barrow Street Theatre from 2004-2005. Productions are currently infesting Los Angeles and Seattle, just as William Friedkin's film version arrives at the movies. Friedkin's one-two punch of The French Connection and The Exorcist in the early Seventies obscures his earlier, worthwhile film adaptations of Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party and Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (the latter scheduled to be released on DVD this fall); with the exception of a Showtime production of 12 Angry Men in 1997, this unexplored facet of his career is one the director has not returned to, despite long dry spells of uneven and/or unpopular films, until now. While not as intense, or as funny, as the play (the camera and its close-ups somehow have the effect of leaching the humor from black comedy; see also Closer, which like Bug was also adapted for the screen by its author), Bug manages to burrow under the skin quite effectively, if you ignore its misleading marketing as a conventional horror film "from the director of The Exorcist" and the distributor behind Saw and Hostel.
Unfolding in an edge-of-nowhere motel in the flat and dusty Southwest, Bug centers on Agnes (Ashley Judd), who, between hits of cocaine, is eking out a living as a waitress at a roadside lesbian bar. Mostly, she escapes-away from her ex-con ex-husband (a beefy Harry Connick, Jr., best-known for his soulful stage and CD crooning but well-suited to movie menace, as in the serial killer flick Copycat), who seems to be leaving anonymous phone calls, and from her guilt over having abandoned her search for their son, who disappeared a decade ago. Her gay friend R.C. (a hell-raising Lynn Collins) hooks her up with the affably child-like Peter (Michael Shannon), whose quiet attentiveness and empathy could be her salvation. But Peter has his own demons-maybe millions of them, as he confides to Agnes his belief, once they have become lovers, that biomechanical "blood-sucking aphids" were implanted in him by the government after his stint in the Gulf War ended. As in Friedkin's controversial, and underrated, Cruising, there is in Bug the notion that violence and paranoia are communicable illnesses, which the emotionally wilted Agnes is all too susceptible to catch. But Letts has framed his story as an extremely offbeat romance, one that fully blossoms only when the cards are laid bare on the table and all suspicions are shared at the razor's edge of sanity. Repeating his stage role, Shannon is terrific as the haunted Peter, who keeps Agnes as a willing prisoner of love to prevent the spread of their contagion. The surprise is Judd. Routinely cast as a damsel-in-distress in too many indifferent movies, and a different type physically from the raw-boned Shannon Cochran, who played it on stage, she lets her defenses drop and is believably, touchingly frazzled as Agnes. As a bonus for theatergoers, the role of the cyborg-like Dr. Sweet, who provides a third-act complication with his intrusion, is cunningly underplayed by Tony winner Brian F. O' Byrne.
"Opened up" a touch for film, Bug is still harrowingly compressed in the playing. The cinematographer, Michael Grady, has lit much of it in an almost smudged amber, replicating the look of hot sunlight through dirty windows. Towards the end, it becomes silvery and otherworldly; I won't say why, except to mention that the production designer, Franco Glacomo -Carbone, has given the motel set a third dimension I don't r