Look at Michael Shannon’s filmography since 2006, where he was first introduced as capable of playing the type of oddball characters he’s now known for. His turns in Revolutionary Road, The Missing Person, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, Boardwalk Empire and Take Shelter are all, in their own unique ways, off the wall.
I’m personally a big Shannon fan, but Bug is one of the finest examples of his ability because he doesn’t begin by displaying any outward psychoses (as in nearly all of the aforementioned). Instead, there’s a true evolution from quiet, shy, harmless guy to the absolute mayhem (without giving any spoilers) that concludes the film.
Even Ashley Judd, who I’m not the biggest fan of, gives a solid performance, and director William Friedkin, he of possibly the greatest cop film of all time – The French Connection – turns Tracy Letts’ claustrophobic play into something visually interesting.
Bug has an interesting opening. This is the first shot:
In relative non-linear style, the film then moves backwards in time, and works its way up to this image again by act 3.
This strategy – a prologue of sorts – is kind of like a visual promise. It works here in a number of ways. Firstly, from a narrative perspective. It’s a promise of genre-drama (the lifeless body = death/violence). This is particularly important given that the first 30 minutes of Bug are a very talky, domestic drama. The first image then counters that idea and, in an era when you’re supposed to give have some real concrete action happen in the first five pages of your script, delays the action but still keeps that tired, underpaid teenage script reader turner the pages.
Secondly, it works from a visual perspective. The whole frame is tinted blue. When we cut to the next shot, the color balance will be restored to normal. Friedkin therefore ties the promise of violence to the promise of an aesthetic change. When the color scheme starts to get out of what later on, we know we’re closer to fulfilling the who/what/why of this image.
Thirdly, it works from a camera perspective. Though you can’t see it in that still image, this is a handheld camera. As with the color tinting, that handheld camera will disappear for a static frame at first, and then return later.
Here’s how Judd’s Agnes White’s motel room starts:
And here’s how it ends:
If the visual promise and the point A to point B don’t interest you here, then I don’t know what will.
Friedkin punctuates his film with a number of helicopter shots outside. Literally. Not just that they are shot from a helicopter, but that they are shot from a helicopter and supposed to be from (within the world of the film) a helicopter.
This is from the opening credits:
The camera starts wide, and slowly helicopters in to the exterior of Agnes’ motel room:
Sorry for the skewed aspect ratio. Friedkin frequently returns to the helicopter, indicating some unknown presence that exists outside the world of the motel, which is where 95% of the action takes place. If Shannon’s Peter Evans is the paranoid, delusional, then these helicopter shots represent something outside of his immediate perspective. They are either a) an extended representation of his mindset, b) a series of randomly passing helicopters, or c) actual surveillance. Friedkin doesn’t tip his hand directly, but the enigmatic shot after the credits roll do give part of the story away.
In some ways Bug reminds me of Take Shelter in the shared – almost contagious – delusions of the characters. Both are dark, harrowing films, that actually promote an odd form of acceptance beneath their pretty grimy exteriors.
Here’s a frame that struck me from Bug:
This kind of deep-focus, angled shot is pretty representative of a lot of the visual strategy in here following Evans’ entry into the story. Friedkin takes some pains to keep White and Evans in the same frame, with her following him more often than vice versa. The camera position here is reminiscent (minus the fish-eye lens) of a security camera, adding to the paranoid idea of “big brother watching.”