A Walk Among the Tombstones
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CANNES, France – William Friedkin’s new horror film “Bug” begins as an ominous rumble of unease, and builds to a shriek. The last 20 minutes are searingly intense: A paranoid personality finds its mate, and they race each other into madness. For Friedkin, director of “The Exorcist,” it’s a work of headlong passion.
The film has caused a stir at Cannes, not least because its stars, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, achieve a kind of manic intensity that’s frightening not just in itself but because you fear for the actors. The film is based on a play by Tracy Letts, an actor and playwright at Chicago’s Steppenwolf theater. It opened in London 10 years ago and was playing in Chicago on 9/11. Friedkin saw it in 2004 in New York with his wife, Paramount studio chief Sherry Lansing. She said thought it was fantastic. When he told her he wanted to make in into a movie, she told him he was crazy. Maybe it took craziness.
“I didn’t want to take it to a big studio where there would be lots of young people eager to, quote, help out the director,” Friedkin said here the day after the film played, joining Letts and Shannon over coffee. “A lot of big stars wanted to act in this piece, and even tried to buy it, but I knew the film had to be true to the play, and Michael was inseparable from the role.”
In the film we meet Agnes (Judd), a waitress in a honky-tonk bar, living in a shabby motel. Her violent ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), just out on parole, walks back into her life, still violent. At about the same time her lesbian friend R. C. (Lynn Collins) drags in a stray with haunted eyes. This is the polite stranger named Peter (Shannon) who says he doesn’t want sex or anything else, is attentive and courteous, and is invited by Agnes to spend the night even though he seems (to us) like the embodiment of menace.
The story involves this man’s obsession with bugs that he believes infect his cells and may have been implanted by the government during his treatment for obscure causes after military service in the Gulf. We think he’s crazy. Agnes listens and nods, and doesn’t want him to leave; she feels safer around him. He begins to seem more weird. This doesn’t bother her. With mounting urgency, she begins to share his obsession about bugs, and together they escalate into a paranoid fantasy that ties together in perfect conspiracy all of the suspicions they’ve ever had about anything. There is a scene we’re not prepared for, in which they’re peering into a cheap microscope and seeing whatever they think they see.
Michael is mad, and Agnes’s personality seems to need him to express its own madness. Ashley Judd’s final monologue is a sustained cry of nonstop breathless panic, twisted logic and sudden frantic insight that is a kind of behavior very rarely risked in or out of the movies. It may not be Shakespeare, but it’s not any easier.
“I wanted Ashley for her intelligence,” Friedkin said, “The actors have to be able to understand this movie. It can’t be explained to them. Her personal experience was a help: She grew up with her mother and sister, poor, living in trailers, she had some abusive relationships…she had some things in common with Agnes. I didn’t have to say a lot to her. We were on the same page.”
I asked Michael Shannon, a member of the A Red Orchid Theatre in Chicago, about the challenge of delivering his own nonstop rapid-fire monologue of madness and not being able to come up for air until the end.
“You get nervous before those long takes,” he said. “The scene I have outside the bathroom door, telling her my life story, I did it once and Billy said that was it. I said I wanted to do it again. He said, ‘What are you trying to do, make Eastman Kodak rich?’ He let me do it again. That time he said, ‘You did it all with your eyes closed. Now try it with your eyes open.’ The third take was like being shot out of a cannon. After it was over, it was all a blur. You have to trust the director.”
Tracy Letts said the inspiration for the play came to him in Oklahoma, his home state. “The Oklahoma City bombing hit me hard,” he said. “I was shocked that it was done by Americans. How far out of the matrix could you slip? The more I investigated paranoia, the more I saw how the connections feed on themselves and build out of control. What happens in this movie is that Agnes is leaping to catch up with Peter.”
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, a sort of psychic air raid shelter against government emissions or who knows what else? “They’re watching us,” Peter says. Friedkin is often called a master of horror, but for him most modern horror films are really just violent comedies.
“For me, ‘United 93’ is a horror film,” he said. “It puts you in a place where you don’t want to go. The horror films that appeal to me are sort of reality: ‘Psycho,' ‘Diabolique,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ That Austrian director, Michael Haneke, he’s the real deal. His ‘Funny Games’ is the scariest film I’ve ever seen.”
“Me, too,” said Tracy Letts.
The thing about “Bug” is that we’re not scared for ourselves so much as for the characters in the movie. “At various times as I was reworking this play on the road,” Letts said, “the conclusion involved various paranoid linkings of every conspiracy in history, from John Wilkes Booth to Lee Harvey Oswald to aliens kidnapping people for experiments. With a certain kind of paranoia, it all connects.”
“I think that scaring people is what made me want to become a movie director,” Friedkin said. “When I was six or seven, I was sitting on our front porch in Chicago telling two girls that a murderer was killing people on our block, and our houses were next on his list. They were spellbound. When I saw I could get to them, I just kept going.”
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