'Bug' will get under your skin

Ashley Judd plays the lonely Agnes and Harry Connick Jr. her menacing ex-con mate. In this film, director William Friedkin is at his horrifying best.

After nearly three decades of misfires, major and minor, William Friedkin, the creator of The French Connection, The Exorcist and Sorcerer, is back in true form with Bug. And heaven help us for it.

Adapted by Tracy Letts from his 2004 Off-Broadway play, Bug is an intense - almost obscenely terrifying - operatic horror story about the plunge of two lost souls into madness. It's a tragic love story all the more horrifying since the couple's violent, self-destructive folie a deux is the first form of intimacy or connection either has ever known. (Think Sam Shepard's Fool for Love dosed on PCP and adapted for an X-Files episode.)

A small, intensely claustrophobic film, Bug is almost entirely set in a fleabag hotel room in the middle of nowhere where a lonely waitress named Agnes spends her days. Ashley Judd gives a sublimely raw, naked performance as Agnes, who is such a fundamentally unsettled, unmoored and lost person, she has become a stranger to her own life. One almost feels vertigo watching her despair.

Agnes lives in dread of her husband, Jerry, an abusive, drunk yahoo. Played with assured, sneering trailer-trash menace by Harry Connick Jr., Jerry tracks her down - just to get his jollies - once he's paroled from prison. But her emotional scars go deeper: Years earlier, her toddler son disappeared from a supermarket. (The kid's dad, Jerry, seems hardly touched by this life event.)

Things start looking up when Agnes meets Peter, an awfully quiet, circumspect man who's probably the first person to accept her as she is. Masterfully played by Michael Shannon, who reprises his London and New York stage role, Peter comes off as a solid, intelligent, if eccentric man who explains to Agnes that he decided to go AWOL from the Army when his health began suffering from a series of medical tests. We believe the man. We want him to bring air, light, love into Agnes' airless world.

We even believe him when he begins obsessively to scratch his skin, believing he's been infested by little bugs. Agnes certainly does: Soon, neither of them can sleep and they spend days cleaning and spraying down every surface and picking each other's skin.

The relief the characters - and viewers - may have felt from the connection Agnes and Peter make doesn't last long. Having drawn our emotions into his world, Friedkin latches on and doesn't let go. By the time the actual fireworks start going off, it's too late: We've been so thoroughly implicated in Agnes and Peter's emotional journey, we are unwittingly sucked into their ensuing madness - and all the more disturbed once we realize how far we would follow them into their self-created hell.

Soon, Peter's idiosyncratic, enigmatic speeches turn violent and paranoid: The bugs aren't just bugs, but bugs, too - the kind the government uses to track him. His paranoid harangues touch on everything, from the war in Iraq to our political system, the medical establishment and even our existential isolation.

The madness is nothing fancy and all the more horrible for it: Its horror lies in how infectious it is. Agnes follows Peter every step of the way. Friedkin pushes the viewer to root for the paranoid couple: We want to believe what they see is real. We draw back, horrified, only when the show reaches its apocalyptic crescendo.

One of the reasons The Exorcist was so effective was Friedkin's ability and willingness to present horror in its purity, unencumbered by the promise there will be redemption or at least some form of explanation or understanding. With Bug, the director has summoned that same form of evil dread.

Bug *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Holly Wiersma, Kimberly C. Anderson, Gary Huckabay, Malcolm Petal, Michael Burns, Andreas Schardt, written by Tracy Letts (based on his play) and directed by William Friedkin, distributed by Lions Gate.

Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes

Agnes White................... Ashley Judd

Michael Shannon............ Peter Evans

Jerry Goss. . . Harry Connick Jr.

R.C....................................Lynn Collins

Parent's guide: R (some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, profanity and drug use)

Playing at: area theaters

Contact Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.