Everybody remembers William Friedkin as the director of two of the biggest hit films of the 70s, The French Connection and The Exorcist. He was one of the "new Hollywood" breed from that pivotal era, the ones who rewrote the rules of American cinema. In Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, Friedkin describes the moment he met director Howard Hawks, after the younger filmmaker had made the gay melodrama The Boys in the Band. Hawks, Old Hollywood and macho to the core, had criticized Friedkin for making such a somber, dramatic movie instead of something with more action:
...Hawks's words did matter to Friedkin. "They really stayed with me," he recalls. "I would have embarked on a course of having made obscure Miramax type films before Miramax. But I had this epiphany that what we were doing wasn't making fucking films to hang in the Louvre. We were making films to entertain people and if they didn't do that first they didn't fulfill their primary purpose. It's like somebody gives you a key and you didn't even know there was a lock; it led to The French Connection."It was an approach that had worked for him for a time. A life of excess, however, led to ambitious projects that failed at the box office, and Friedkin's career was never the same.
Over thirty years later, Friedkin teamed up with playwright Tracy Letts, to adapt his play Bug. The result was more of a "Miramax type film" (it was actually made at Lionsgate), meaning - if I interpret this correctly - heavy on the drama, B-level stars at best, narrower distribution.
Does that equal obscure in this case? Bug opened domestically on 1661 screens in May 2007. By way of contrast, Spider-Man 3, which opened the same month, played on 4252 screens. As for Miramax itself, they released the French drama Golden Door on two screens in June, while Oscar-winner No Country for Old Men opened on 28 screens in November, so Bug actually had a much wider release than the average Miramax movie. I think, though, Friedkin may have referred to content instead of distribution.
Regardless, this was an awesome movie. Ashley Judd plays a waitress living in a motel room, trying to avoid her ex-con ex-husband. She meets a pre-fame Michael Shannon, who's also trying to put his past behind him, only in his case, it's much worse. When his personal demons are brought to the surface, they infect Judd in a profound way. Revealing any more would spoil the story.
Bug doesn't resemble any of Friedkin's other work visually; it looks modern. Perhaps because it's a play, there are fewer cuts; we linger on the actors in longer takes, a refreshing contrast to many modern films. I never thought of Friedkin as an actor's director - he is the guy who nearly crippled Ellen Burstyn just to get a genuine reaction from her on camera - but he gets Oscar-caliber performances from Judd and Shannon. Much of the action takes place in Judd's motel room, but it doesn't feel too stagey.
According to Riders, Friedkin was afraid of being labeled an art film director. When Connection took off, making big money and winning Oscars, he embraced commercialism. Bug made a little over $7 million from an estimated $4 million budget. Granted, the 21st century economics of American film are substantially different from the 70s, but with this film, it does look like Friedkin reembraced his original aesthetic.
Bug wraps themes of paranoia and conspiracy within an unconventional love story, one with a downer ending - not the kind of movie audiences flock to the way they did for The Exorcist, and certainly not the kind of which Hawks would have approved. I suspect, though, that Friedkin no longer cared.