Saturday, February 23, 2008
Underrated, Underappreciated Movies, Day 2: Bug
Bug is an adaptation of Tracy Letts's well-loved play of the same name. It debuted at Cannes in May 2006 and received a release in over 1500 American theaters a year later. Thrown into the fray with Pirates 3, Shrek 3 and Spiderman 3 still in theaters, it managed to pull down an opening weekend of 4 million dollars but plummeted significantly after that. Word of mouth and middling critical reception seems to have sunk the film. Why? Let's find out.
What Turned Them Away?
- The marketing. This is by far the biggest reason for the film's chilly reception. You first have to understand that Bug is a ****ing weird film. Marketers design their campaigns around broad genres: adventure, romance, drama, horror. Bug doesn't fit into any of these conventional categories, so Lions Gate decided to stick it into what seemed to work best: horror. If Americans were more tolerant of the "horrifying dramatic black-comedy paranoid love story" genre, Bug may have found a great deal more success, but alas, it was not meant to be.
- The movie itself. Once the marketing got asses into seats, people were alarmed to discover that they were not watching a horror movie. What they saw was half an hour of talky drama, followed by a few weird things that escalated into a bizarre, twisted fever dream of a movie. Certainly not your average summer fare, and with the 60% revenue dropoff from one weekend to another, highly unappreciated. This film is as far out of the box as you get. Bug sees the box, screams and flies away.
- It WAS a play. Ready for the shocker of the century? Plays tend to thrive on their dialogue. Bug is very, very dialogue-heavy, which is dangerous for any film to pull off. You have to give yourself completely to the actors and suspend all disbelief, and it gets especially difficult in this movie. To be fair, I do think it is one of the movie's faults - it really would have benefited from a more radical adaptation from the play.
What Should Have Kept Them?
+ It's unique. As I mentioned before, this went up against a handful of blockbuster threequels and got absolutely destroyed. It's a pretty telling statement for the rewards that originality receives in American media when three derivative formula movies gross a small nation's worth of profit and Bug can't even pull down five million. If I had to invent a genre in as few words as possible for Bug, it would be "absurdist psychological horror". You simply can't do it justice with anything less. It develops two compelling, tormented characters and sends them straight to Hell. Like recent darling There Will Be Blood, there are plenty of humorous moments interlaced with absolutely horrifying ones; it's as if the movie is challenging you to laugh at its insanity. Ashley Judd screaming "I am the super mother bug!!!" in the middle of a heated monologue about governmental conspiracy is about as bizarre as you can get, and surely is an unforgettable moment in the midst of a bunch of forgettable movies.
+ It's powerful. Bug is only a "horror" movie in that some truly unspeakable things happen to the characters we see. The movie allots time to let these people build: Agnes White, bereaved mother and on the run from her terrifying ex-husband, and off-kilter war veteran Peter Evans. Agnes is going through a difficult time emotionally, after the disappearance of her son and her husband's release from prison, and she finds emotional solace in Peter's presence. Sadly, Peter's not all there, convinced that the government is planting "bugs" in him; before you know it, he's got her on a psychological rollercoaster. Agnes is clearly a good, if troubled, person and the things she sees in her exposed state sting us by proxy. One scene, for instance, involves the removal of a bug's "egg sac" and is absolutely terrifying. It is filmed in cold, lengthy shots, not giving the viewer a chance to rest as we watch the painful process. There are never any "safe points" in the movie, riding a steadily mounting wave of fear to the several scary climaxes.
+ Ashley Judd. Who the hell knew she could act? And act she does in Bug; in fact, she acts incredibly well. It is certainly one of the strongest performances of the 2007 movie year, one that she was never going to be honored for but may have deserved it in some alternate world. Agnes White is the crux of the movie; it gives you a half hour to buy into her plight and understand why she so willingly buys into Peter's lunatic ravings. She represents the last bastion of rationale in the twisted chain of events that unfolds, and Judd plays her part with a tempered, wary sort of delusion. She gives off the impression that though she is externally agreeing to whatever she's told, there's some part left of her that simply can't buy into it all - a superb feat from an actress who hasn't been able to prove herself quite like this before.
Bug is a movie that you have to come into with a very open mind. If you expect typical horror tropes, you're going to be deeply disappointed. Allow the movie to be what it is, and you may find yourself shocked, disturbed and perhaps even entertained in a sick sort of way. As I said before, its play roots cause it to be a little long in the tooth in some spots, but a majority of the dialogue is riveting and clever. Bug is truly one of 2007's most underrated pictures.