The sound of beating wings grows louder and ever symbolically louder in Bug, a daft exercise in superfluous hysteria by William Friedkin. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it the military-industrial complex? Or is it just an army of unwelcome aphids burrowing under the skin of a stranger who shows up unannounced in a rundown Oklahoma motel inhabited by a woman with a dark secret straight out of television movies? Then there’s that phone ringing off the hook, and no one’s there when she picks up. I mean, who can it be?

Billed as a psychological horror movie, Bug, which is adapted by Steppenwolf actor and playwright Tracy Letts from his 1996 stage play, plays more like lousy dinner theater doing its darnedest to give American paranoia a bad name. One weeps for Ashley Judd, who has done some of her finest work playing Southern working-class heroines (Ruby in Paradise) and ruined slatterns (Come Early Morning). Here she’s a generic trailer-trash lush and coke head, desperate and vulnerable but just worldly enough to be sleeping with luscious lesbian R.C. (Lynn Collins), the only character with her head on straight by a long chalk. This may mollify gays with long memories of the limp-wristed fags in Friedkin’s 1970 adaptation of The Boys in the Band and the sleazy homosexual underworld in Cruising, which won him three Golden Raspberries, a decade later. But it has the unfortunate effect of making everyone around R.C. look like a comic-book loony or a gibbering wreck. Out comes the creepy pornographer in Friedkin, who points his camera up Agnes’ skirt and lingers on her astride the toilet in grimy underwear in preparation for the inevitable striptease. Despite Judd’s capable best efforts to breathe an inner life into Agnes, she emerges a pathetic creature who, for all her drunken bravado, lets down her guard in no time to a total stranger with mad eyes, ably played by Michael Shannon, last seen as a vengeful vet striding around Ground Zero in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

At first Peter appears to be a savior, promising Agnes he’s not interested in sex and shielding her from her ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), who’s fresh out of jail and spoiling for a fight. It’s none too clear what Jerry is doing in the movie, other than to up the ante of arbitrary masculine power and let Connick Jr. flex his nasty muscles. But pretty soon Bug settles into a pas de deux of mutual disintegration, with Agnes playing busy co-dependent to Peter as he mutilates his body to rid himself of the pesky flies and they turn the motel room into a blue-lit detox unit swathed in aluminum foil. Following the unsolicited arrival of a certain Dr. Sweet (Brían F. O’Byrne), a sinister invader of privacy if ever I saw one and mysteriously knowledgeable about the skeletons in Agnes and Peter’s respective closets, the dialogue buries itself in crazy-vet ranting and a raft of muddle-headed topic sentences hinting darkly at the destruction of America by chemicals, technology and information, followed by more beating of wings. Our traumatized soldiers deserve better representation than this irretrievably ridiculous drama, which will do nothing to revive the flagging fortunes of the man whose career lay down and died after The Exorcist and The French Connection.

BUG | Directed by WILLIAM FRIEDKIN | Written by TRACY LETTS, based on his play | Produced by HOLLY WIERSMA, KIMBERLY C. ANDERSON, MALCOLM PETAL, GARY HUCKABAY, MICHAEL BURNS and ANDREAS SCHARDT | Released by Lionsgate | Citywide

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Scott Foundas' interview with director William Friedkin

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