Phil on Film Index

Monday, December 03, 2007

Review - Bug and Sleuth

When anyone decides to adapt a stage play for the big screen they are wandering into delicate territory. What works perfectly in one medium will not necessarily translate into another, and there's always the temptation to 'open out' the drama, to make it more visual appealing to the moviegoer, but that approach runs the risk of diluting the intimacy which made the piece work within the confines of the theatre. It's a tricky business, but William Friedkin's new film Bug succeeds largely because it stays true to its roots. We are always aware of the film's stage origins thanks to its minimalist setting and occasionally overripe dialogue, but Bug ultimately works because of the claustrophobic intensity it generates, and it plays on the nerves with remarkable skill.

Bug is essentially a two-hander. Sure, a few extra hands are involved from time to time, but our main focus lies with Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon), two unstable individuals driving each other to distraction in the shabby motel room she calls home. At first, Agnes is alone, plagued by sinister silent phone calls which may or may not be coming from her violent ex Jerry (Harry Connick Jr), who has just been released from jail. She is glad of the company when her friend RC (Lynn Collins) turns up with stranger Peter for a night of boozing and drug-taking, but when RC is called away she is left alone with Peter, who most viewers will have already pegged as an odd character. He's very courteous and polite – and he insists that he doesn't want to be anything more than friends with her – but there's something rather off-kilter about him, and the audience sits in anticipation of Peter revealing his creepy side at any moment.

Of course, we might be harbouring these suspicions because Peter is played by Michael Shannon, a man whose distinctive features give him an air of barely contained mania from the outset. He has a slightly bug-eyed face (excuse the pun), a face that always seems to be contorted into a twisted grimace, so when we see him playing such a reserved and seemingly nice guy – as he does in the early stages here – we instantly suspect the worst. Shannon played this part on stage in Tracy Letts' play, and he is completely comfortable in the role, charting every stage in the development of Peter's psychosis with quick, adroit gear changes. The first major shift occurs after Agnes and Peter have finally acquiesced to the inevitable and had sex. He wakes up with a start, complaining of bugs in the bed, and even though Agnes can't see the "rogue aphids" which he is being disturbed by, he is so convincing in his mania that she begins to believe, and once she has taken that step there is no way of turning back.

It's hard to come to terms with the fact that Bug has been directed by William Friedkin, a filmmaker who has given us little of value in the past twenty years, and for whom the glory days of The Exorcist and The French Connection seemed a very distant memory. Bug seems to have revitalised him, and he attacks Letts' adaptation of his own play with unexpected energy, revelling in the chance to play with the film's intimate surroundings, and his smart of tight camerawork and eerie lighting plays a huge part in the film's strange pull on the viewer. Friedkin's wisest directorial decision, though, is to stay out of his actors' way, giving them the space they need to produce electrifying performances. Collins, Connick Jr and Brian F O'Byrne (in a late cameo) are all convincing, but the best reason to see Bug is for Ashley Judd's fearless, lacerating turn as the emotionally unhinged Agnes. It has been a long, long time since this actress has been given a role as meaty as this, and her deeply empathetic acting creates a intriguing character whom we can feel for, which makes the devastating deterioration of her mental state surprisingly powerful.

The film's final third sees both characters spiralling into the abyss; Peter starts digging into his skin to remove the insects he believes the government has planted there, and Agnes starts drawing links between events they have experienced in order to back up his crazed rantings. The film's tone escalates to a pitch of manic hysteria, but it never falls apart; it risks ridiculousness at every turn, but the utter conviction of the performances and the taut, clammy atmosphere hold it together. Bug is a creepily effective portrait of an emotionally bereft woman losing herself in the paranoid fantasies of another, and while we never actually see the bugs in question, it made my skin crawl like few other movies this year.

The other notable stage adaptation to hit the screens recently is a new version of Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth, the latest step in Jude Law's bizarre mission to convince the world that he's the Michael Caine du jour. One would have thought a dismal remake of Alfie would have been enough to deter Law from ever stepping into the legendary actor's shoes again, but here he is, blithely marching into another disaster by taking on the role of Milo Tindle, a part Caine played onscreen in 1972. This time we have the opportunity to make a direct comparison between the two actors, with Caine himself appearing as Andrew Wyke – who was played by Laurence Olivier in Joseph L Mankiewicz's film – but neither actor is done any favours by the disastrous picture cooked up by director Kenneth Branagh and screenwriter Harold Pinter.

The bare bones of the plot remain unchanged. Stylish young hairdresser Tindle turns up at the opulent home of reclusive thriller novelist Wyke, the man whose wife he has been seeing for some time. Tindle wants the old man to grant his estranged spouse a divorce, but Wyke is having none of it, and he has his own plan in place to gain revenge on this cocky philanderer. The two men become ensnared in a tightly contested game of spite and humiliation, with the stakes continually being raised until the evening ends in murder – or does it?

It's an inherently stagey set-up, and quite intentionally so, with Shaffer's original play being very much about the kind of role-playing and deception which occurs so naturally in the theatre. Mankiewicz's film was a perfectly fine, if overlong, screen version, so what purpose does this new picture serve? It brings nothing new to the concept, its modernisation is lazy, and even after excising over fifty minutes from the original production Branagh has produced a film which outstays its welcome. In his determination to spice things up visually, the director indulges in an array of self-consciously tricky camera angles, and he employs a garish lighting scheme which only threatens to induce headaches among the audience. In addition, the production design is simply absurd, with Wyke's minimalist home resembling the lair of a 1970's Bond villain, and under all of this clutter nothing is ever allowed to breathe.

Another of Sleuth's major selling points is the presence of recent Nobel Prize winner Harold Pinter, who has freely adapted the play in his own inimitable style. Pinter has lost the playfulness of the original and has turned the film into a much blunter, coarser object. As usual, Pinter's manneristic language inevitably leads to the actors.... pausing in.... odd places; and his habit of throwing a handful of "fucks" and "cunts" into the mix is tiresome. He has made changes to the story's structure too, with the tone lurching all over the place as the film heads into the climax, where the whole embarrassing spectacle slides into homoerotic lunacy.

Sleuth's biggest flaw, however, lies with the acting: to be more specific, it lies with the acting of Jude Law. He has proven himself as a capable, if limited, performer in the past, but he's just terrible here, delivering a histrionic turn which is wildly inconsistent from one scene to the next. Law seems to have a devil of a time getting the cadences and rhythms of Pinter's dialogue right, and he compensates by going over-the-top with a performance that just gets worse as the picture progresses. Thank heavens, then, for Michael Caine, who counters Law's schoolboy shouting with an understated performance that allows his innate screen presence to do much of the legwork. While Law frantically chews the scenery to little effect, Caine shows us how much he can do with a wry gesture, or a cool line reading, and his professional display is the closest this film has to a saving grace. Jude Law might still fancy himself as the new Michael Caine, but it appears the apprentice is still no match for the master.