Poor Michael Shannon! Imagine having to play the same role time and again and turning something as exciting as acting into a mundane routine. In William Friedkin’s colossal misfire of a psychological thriller, Shannon portrays yet another nutcase (who goes by the name of Peter Evans), this time a ‘delusional paranoid schizophrenic’…but a bigger one compared to his recent “Take Shelter”. But that isn’t the least of our worries. He is also a violent crackpot, a total madcap who inflicts cuts and wounds on himself!
What’s more..he has great convincing power, whereby he is capable of making a complete fool out of a seemingly sane but depressed Agnes (Ashley Judd). Friedkin takes us audiences to be complete dimwits too, what with Agnes’ lesbian friend R.C. who ‘just met’ Peter introduces him to Agnes and brings him to Agnes’ motel room for a night of alcohol and cocaine binging! Now it is just one meeting but after some sob stories and a surprisingly quick bonding later, Agnes and Peter end up having sex! One unconvincing situation after the other and we get to the focal point…..the bug infestation! Peter suddenly starts finding bugs everywhere…on him, around him, and keeps slapping himself once in a while in an attempt to kill these bugs….Agnes can’t see anything, but Peter, the great convincer that he is manages to convince Agnes that the room is infested with bugs.
And to add to it there’s a bizarre conspiracy theory of the US army using Peter as a guinea pig to conduct some ghastly experiments which include planting bug egg-sacs in his tooth! By the time the senile old Friedkin starts bombarding all this nonsense on his audiences, we are already awaiting the end of the film, simply because we are just not interested in the madness anymore. And Shannon, being Shannon and a pro at acting like a psychotic weirdo, has a ball doing it, with extra gusto this time...convulsing, swatting invisible bugs all over his body, inflicting injuries, twitching his face, slapping it once in a while, hollering at the top of his voice concocting one theory after another as to what actually is happening with him and Agnes! Judd joins in, with an initially stellar performance which unfortunately takes a free fall in the second half of the film, in which both Judd and Shannon seem to be vying for the trophy of the most ridiculously over-the-top and unintentionally comic performance of all time! A nervous wreck that she becomes, she also mouths off loud lines in resonance with Shannon’s insane ramblings about implanted computer chips and manufactured zombies, human guinea pigs and androids posing as humans ……..you feel like reaching for the stop button already! At one point of time I literally felt like getting a bug spray and dousing Shannon and Judd in it to free them from their misery!
Add to that Friedkin’s non-serious attitude thanks to which he throws so much of logic right out the window….I mean, it’s a Motel room that’s been turned into a tin foil house decorated with bug zappers! Where are the Motel authorities for Christ sakes?! Agnes is supposed to be great friends with R.C. but she trusts Peter over R.C. and slaps R.C. out of her room! A lot more incredibly brainless situations abound. Throw in some couple more stupid scenes and a subplot revolving around Agnes’ estranged abusive ex-hubby Jerry (Harry Connick Jr) who acts like a tough guy wife-beater in one scene, yet foolishly gets his hand stapled in the other….. and voila! You got the perfect schlock in the name of a “disturbing psychological horror”.
But that’s not all! Friedkin gets even more ambitious…and tries to do a Hitchcock here, and needless to say, fails miserably in creating any sort of locked-in, claustrophobic atmosphere, which just comes across as a cheap imitation. Shyamalan did a much better job in “Signs”. There are but a few tense moments which are far between and can’t do much to save the film as a whole. There’s also Judd’s fine acting until she turns into a hysterical comedian joining in the cacophony of Shannon’s jitter-‘bug’ maniacal clown. Both of them devise a ‘great’ plan to save the world from the bug infection, one that’s supposed to affect us deeply; but we find that we have almost given up by the third act…..