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Wednesday, June 6, 2007 08:20 am

Hurricane Billy is back

Bug marks William Friedkin’s return to form

Untitled Document Bug may have been drowned in the current flood of sequels, but it has great cinematic significance. The intense psychological-horror thriller marks the return to form of director William Friedkin. He hasn’t been this good in decades. Ashley Judd gives a fearless performance as a troubled waitress who lets a strange drifter (Michael Shannon) stay with her in her desolate desert motel home. Soon after he claims to have been bitten by an unseen insect that he believes is part of a military experiment. He drags Judd down into his dementia as the intensity crescendos under Friedkin’s claustrophobic direction. No one could have predicted the direction Friedkin’s career would take from his directorial debut, the awful Sonny and Cher film Good Times (1967). A handful of film adaptations of plays followed before the real Hurricane Billy, as he is known in the industry, emerged with The French Connection (1971). His trademark sadistic streak, clearly on display in the insane chase scene, pushed the film into big box office, which led to several Oscars. Who else could have taken The Exorcist (1973) beyond the boundaries of good taste where it needed to be? Demonic possession had never been more shocking, and Friedkin’s ability to defy convention resulted in what remains the most controversial movie in history. Unfortunately, his fall was faster than his rise, but he still managed to churn out a number of great films. The adventure crime thriller Sorcerer (1977) sent his career into a tailspin. Roy Scheider stars as one of four criminals on the run who are recruited to transport nitroglycerine by truck through a dense jungle to an oil fire. The crossing of a rickety bridge, in which Scheider is really driving, is one of the most mind-boggling moments ever filmed. Sorcerer went way over budget, by 100 percent, and bombed at the box office. The boy wonder had failed with his greatest achievement. Cruising (1980), another controversial chapter in Friedkin’s career, stars Al Pacino as a cop who goes undercover to track down a killer of homosexuals. Perhaps the country wasn’t quite ready for a probing peek into the gay community’s sadomasochistic subculture. Friedkin managed to offend both homosexuals and heterosexuals with his darkly brilliant psychodrama. To Live and Die In L.A. (1985) was a noble attempt to recapture the magic of The French Connection. It doesn’t quite reach that level, but this study of a pair of Treasury agents tracking a counterfeiter is still one of Friedkin’s best. Now Bug can be added to that list.

New on DVD this Tuesday (June 12): Breach, Ghost Rider, Days of Glory, and Blood and Chocolate.
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