Some filmmakers just have a special quality to them that isn't always easy to define, but sets them apart for the levels of nuance they're able to achieve with their art form. William Friedkin was a director who certainly fit this bill. He was the Academy Award-winning director of The French Connection but was probably best known for the horror classic The Exorcist (which also earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Director the following year).
Update August 11, 2023: Following the passing of William Friedkin, this article has been updated with additional information about Bug in honor of the late great director.
The recently passed Friedkin had a long and impressive filmography that additionally included many critically acclaimed films and documentaries. While it isn't one of his most frequently mentioned films, Friedkin also directed the psychological thriller Bug, which debuted at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival and gave audiences something to talk about. Despite its relatively uncelebrated response, many people believe that Bug was a masterpiece and one of William Friedkin's best films. To honor the late Friedkin, let's take a look at Bug, one of the weirdest and most bonkers films ever made.
Bug Was Woefully Underrated
Bug offered a disturbing and gritty take on paranoia and addiction, exploring the horrific ordeals that can be produced when these two things intersect through abuse of the infamous and highly addictive drug, crystal meth. Adding to these already unsettling elements was the film's clever use of a stifling and creative setting since most of it takes place in a motel room that lends the atmosphere an uncomfortably caged-in edge.
Despite all of these amazing qualities that made the film different but so effective in how it creeps under the viewer's skin, it received a relatively tepid critical and commercial response. At the box office, against a $4 million budget, the film doubled this amount but never made enough to make it anything to write home about. It was released in theaters on May 25, 2007. While a Memorial Day weekend is normally a good sign, the film opened the same day as Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End, which at the time held the record for the biggest Memorial Day opening weekend ever. It brought in $3.4 million in its opening weekend and was overshadowed by other major summer films like Spider-Man 3 and Shrek the Third.
It also received an F CinemaScore from audiences. However, given how much depth, psychological nuance, and strong points the film had, it sits comfortably with a 61% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Since it's release, it has grown a cult following and is now regarded as an underrated gem.
A Stellar Cast
Aside from having William Friedkin directing it, Bug also featured a much younger Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon in leading roles. Both of these performers have been nominated for and won a host of prestigious awards between them. Shannon, in particular, has been nominated for two Academy Awards and has proven to be one of the most highly-rated actors of our generation. Both of them were superb in the film and melt into their roles. A drug-addicted waitress and her ex-husband who forms the basis of her greatest fears that plague her, as her meth-fueled paranoia distorts reality in a horrifying way.
While Judd is exceptional in the way she brings her character's terrified and unhinged psyche to life, Shannon is just as riveting as the object of her nightmarish journey. By coaxing out such amazingly layered performances from the pair and tying everything together with some brutal cinematography, Friedkin acts as the maestro that conducts these different pieces into a brilliantly composed cinematic symphony.
A Masterful Plot
The film also featured some ingenious and nuanced ways of bringing its core theme to bear. By centering all the drama in a cramped motel room, Bug uses drugs as the fuel that lights its main theme of paranoia on fire. Once the blaze is set, the actors, visuals, and Friedkin's directing, burns its way into the mind of the main character until it consumes it in such a visceral way that even the viewers feel its searing heat.
By using narcotics to skew the main character's perspectives, the film cleverly masks elements of reality with gut-wrenching paranoia that make for an uncomfortable thrill ride. It uniquely captures what hardcore meth addicts likely suffer through as a consequence of years of frequent usage of the drug. In this way, the film also doubles as a frightening allegory for addiction and the hell that addicts put themselves and others through.
Bug Is a Veritable Masterpiece
Despite her shortcomings as an addict, Judd's character, Agnes White, retains a tragic backstory underpinning all the suffering that takes her down a path that only leads to more of it. This journey is one that mirrors the sad reality of addiction since addicts often turn to substances to escape pain — that is until their addictions become their main source of pain and mire their lives in a cacophony of distorted realities, heartache, suffering, and regret.
For the manner in which the film so abruptly drags the viewers across the stains of the main character's life, and forces them to experience it all with her, Bug earns its reputation of being a terminally underrated movie that often isn't recognized as a true masterpiece of cinema. If you haven't seen it yet, the film is certainly one to watch. However, fair warning, its darkly stylized manner, and intensity aren't for everyone. If you love films that find effective ways to tell powerful and significant stories, you're sure to love it. Just be prepared.
Remembering William Friedkin
Following Bug, Friedkin only made two more films: 2011's Killer Joe and the upcoming film The Cain Mutiny Court-Martial, which is scheduled to premiere at the 80th Venice International Film Festival and will be released posthumously. This will be the last film the legendary filmmaker ever made. While Friedkin might not have been the draw he was back in the 70s, his talent never diminished, and Bug is proof of that.
Here's a little of what legendary film critic Roger Ebert had to say when he reviewed Bug:
"The film is lean, direct, unrelenting. A lot of it takes place in the motel room, which by the end has been turned into an eerie cave lined with aluminum foil, a sort of psychic air raid shelter against government emissions or who knows what else? "They're watching us," Peter says. The thing about "Bug" is that we're not scared for ourselves so much as for the characters in the movie. Judd and Shannon bravely cast all restraint aside and allow themselves to be seen as raw, terrified and mad."
Certainly, a film that can help you observe the legacy of the late Friedkin, a subversive director who wasn't often happy with how his films turned out but always stayed interesting as a visionary of the weird, the ugly, and the horrific.