Wednesday, April 25, 2018

The Inadvertent William Friedkin PTSD Trilogy: "Rules of Engagement," "The Hunted," and "Bug."

William Friedkin is most famous for his early work, mainly The Exorcist and The French Connection (he also made the excellent Sorcerer around this time), yet I don’t own any of those films. Friedkin is largely forgotten today, even though he’s made some interesting and entertaining films in the last two decades. In fact, the only Friedkin movies I own are films he made after 2000.

I’m not sure if this is intentional, but Friedkin made three movies in a row between 2000 and 2006 that dealt with PTSD with increasing intensity: Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, and Bug. They are three very different films, and none of them were considered all that great upon their release. Bug is the closest, with a 61% on Rotten Tomatoes, but Rules (29%) and Hunted (31%) aren’t even close to being considered critically successful. I happen to love (or at least like) all three. Initially, I was only going to write about The Hunted because it showed up in the same YouTube video that led me to rewatch Constantine. But when I looked at my collection, I saw that I had all three of these movies and the PTSD connection occurred to me. I doubt that Friedkin chose these projects just because of that, but it’s still an interesting way to revisit these three films. First up: Rules of Engagement. (As always, there will be SPOILERS, but I’ll try to keep them minor since these films are lesser known and certainly less popular than Friedkin’s other work.)

Rules of Engagement:

Rules of Engagement is about the court martial of Col. Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) who ordered his men to open fire on a crowd of protesters during a peace-keeping mission in Yemen. Childers relies on his lifelong friend, Col. Hayes Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones), to defend him.

It’s a very complex film that deals with loyalty within the military, politics in war, Vietnam, PTSD, and Middle East relations. It’s a film without easy answers. It’s unclear for the first half of the film whether or not Childers was justified, and that ambiguity makes the film work quite well, as we’re left to rely on his own stressful memories of the event and the testimony of others who either couldn’t see the crowd or might be covering up to avoid to a larger military conflict.

Unfortunately, it is revealed via a security tape (major SPOILER) that the crowd did have weapons. But the tape is destroyed by a corrupt National Security Adviser. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but according to the IMDb trivia section (so take this with a grain of salt), Friedkin initially wanted to leave the content of the tape out of the film. Leaving that open would make this movie so much more intriguing and powerful. It’s still a very thought-provoking movie, but I think it would have been received more favorably if things were left up to the audience to decide.

The PTSD elements make make a more lasting impression, especially since they are never directly addressed (at the time of the film, PTSD was not the common topic it is today). So viewing it through today’s world makes it an even deeper film regarding military service and what is justified in combat situations. And it seems like Friedkin recognized this after the fact. He doesn’t mention anything in the DVD interviews (which are mainly promotional fluff), though he may have mentioned something in the commentary (I didn’t listen to it because Friedkin seems like the type to explain what you’re watching rather than elaborate on it). Either way, PTSD isn’t the showcase here, but it is immediately prominent in his next film, The Hunted. I don’t think it’s a stretch that he may have looked back on Rules of Engagement and decided to focus more on this aspect of the film for his next movie.

Even with the misstep with the ambiguity, Rules of Engagement is a movie that stuck with me. I’ve watched it at least five times at this point, and will most likely watch it again. There are complex issues brought up in this film, and it handles them in a smart, convincing manner. That, coupled with strong performances from an amazing cast, make this a movie I am proud to own. Rules of Engagement is a movie that is unfairly lumped in with other military thrillers (as evidenced by my own placement of it within my own collection next to other military thrillers). If you haven’t seen it, or you dismissed it the first time around, give it another chance.

I’ll finish with my random thoughts for this film before moving on to The Hunted.

Random Thoughts

Jones has issues with not being able to live up to his father’s legacy, and he has survivor’s guilt from Vietnam, but the PTSD is there, as well. When he visits Yemen, he has a moment on the rooftop where he reacts as if he’s under fire. On his way home, he has memories of Vietnam in connection to the dead and injured victims in Yemen, and it causes him to drink.

The old man fight, which has shades of They Live, is a bit odd tonally, since it plays for laughs at times, but I liked it.

Jackson’s PTSD is evident when he has a flashback while watching the flag being lowered.

It’s clear that Jackson’s experience in Vietnam shaped the kind of leader he became, for better or worse. Jones’s experience sticks with him, as well. Jackson’s hardened his resolve, while Jones’s softened his. All over a coin flip. Both develop drinking issues, and Jackson has a short temper. And a lot of the film is about whether or not you should severely punish someone who has devoted their life to their country. How do we deal with soldiers when aspects of PTSD lead them to make mistakes on the battlefield?

“Murder, sir?” I don’t know why, but this quote stuck with me. I still either say it or think it when I hear the word “murder.” It’s partly due to Jackson’s delivery, but it’s also because they advertised the hell out of this movie, and that line was in every preview.

“Are these the muthafuckas?” Guy Pearce’s delivery is amusing, but it’s made that much better when Jackson answers with an angry, “Yes!”

Tommy Lee Jones and Samuel L. Jackson are perfectly cast, even if it is a bit strange that they play themselves in the present and in Vietnam.

The embassy sequence is extremely tense. Friedkin does a great job of placing you there in this chaotic situation, adding to the complexity of the film. In hindsight, the wrong call was made, but when you see it in the moment, you can understand how Jackson could make such a decision.

Strange to see Philip Baker Hall playing Jones’s father, since he’s only fifteen years older. Not impossible, of course, but seems unlikely. Jones just seems perpetually seventy years old, so it’s weird to see him with a living father.  

This is one of those odd movies that is completely fictional, yet contains text at the end letting the audience know what happened to certain characters later. This actually made me think it was based on a true story the first time I watched. Watching it now, it seems like test audiences felt that certain things were left too open, and there wasn’t money or something for re-shoots.

The Hunted:

This simple, straightforward film is a mix of Rambo (a veteran on the run that cannot function in the normal world) and The Fugitive (Tommy Lee Jones hunts him down).

The Hunted is almost too straightforward and simple. Benicio del Toro plays the troubled veteran, who was basically a hit man for the military. He goes AWOL and kills two hunters (who are most likely there to hunt him), starting a manhunt. Jones was his trainer, which is why he is asked to help catch him. It’s fine and simple enough, but there are so many intriguing elements to the story that get left out.

For one thing, Del Toro is described as having “battle stress,” which is obviously another term for PTSD, but this isn’t explored nearly enough. Instead of elaborating on that with flashbacks or dialogue, it’s left vague, and he’s pretty much treated as a dangerous monster, rather than a sympathetic victim of his history in the military. To be fair, there are a couple moments that humanize him, but overall he’s just a man on the run who needs to be caught.

Jones is similarly affected by his past, even though he didn’t serve in the military. He just trained people how to kill effectively. This is another interesting aspect that only gets touched on. Here’s a man suffering because he knows his training led to a lot of death and violence.

But Friedkin, as he admits in an interview on the DVD, is not interested in exploring any of this. He thinks action thrillers have become too complex and bogged down in plot. He wanted to give the audience a bare bones, violent chase film. In that regard, he succeeds.

The Hunted has lengthy moments without dialogue. And one chase sequence takes place for nearly a half hour (the movie is only an hour and a half long) through multiple locations. If the film is only judged on its effectiveness along those lines, then it should be considered a success. But if we only judge films based on them accomplishing what the filmmakers set out to do, then how can we criticize anything. Also, it’s not like everyone knows Friedkin’s goals when they watched the movie. So when I look at this film through the PTSD angle, it’s a failure. I still enjoy this film for action thriller aspect, but I can’t ignore the missed opportunities. Also, a foot chase is only interesting for so long…

The film does focus more on PTSD, though. It’s mentioned directly, and every scene with del Toro makes it very clear that this man is struggling with his past. It’s just unfortunate that none of the characters even consider helping him. Instead, it’s just used as a plot device to explain why this trained killer needs to be caught. This also confirms that Friedkin is not actually interested in PTSD, at least not as a major focus. He refers to del Toro as “losing it,” which is not how you would refer to a character you are sympathetic to. That doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a movie about PTSD. The director’s intention doesn’t matter when someone can watch the finished product and focus on the PTSD.

Random Thoughts

I kind of hated this movie the first time I watched it, but the spoken word performance by Johnny Cash that bookends the film (and the use of “The Man Comes Around”) for the credits, made me give it another chance. I was going through a major Cash phase at the time. The use of Cash has less of an effect on me now, but I still like the use of it.

According to IMDb trivia (remember, take some salt) Jones made 20 million for these. If that’s true, it’s insane.

Good knife fights. In fact, there’s a moment I love. You know how literally every knife fight in a movie has that moment when one person tries to stab and the other person grabs their hand and they struggle until one overpowers the other? Well, in this film, del Toro simply drops his knife when this happens, catches it with his other hand, and slashes Jones. Awesome.

There’s a father killing a son thing a la Abraham and the Johnny Cash lines, but there’s nothing to it onscreen. The flashbacks are nothing but knife training. Was that supposed to establish a father-son bond? If so, do all of the trainees think of Jones as their dad?

An odd Del Toro performance: he speaks clearly throughout. It’s off-putting.

Strange scene when he visits Irene. They say each other’s name in every sentence. Try doing that in your next conversation. It’s an unnerving way to talk.

After writing all these complaints, I watched the special features and Friedkin explains most of them. I thought it was too short; Friedkin says thrillers are too long and too drawn out and should be simpler. I wanted more father-son stuff established; Friedkin says the letter scene at the end showed that Jones had received the letters but had no answer. Basically he had failed as a father to Del Toro, which is why he had to kill him. I can see all this, but I think it could have been made a bit more clear in the film. You wouldn’t need to add that much more to the run time for it to work.


Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a waitress down on her luck living in a seedy motel. She is introduced to Peter, a drifter that she has an immediate connection to. After moving in with her, they become convinced that the motel room is infested with bugs.

This is definitely the strangest film of the trilogy, and damn near the strangest of Friedkin’s career (I think Killer Joe is weirder, though both films are based on Tracy Letts plays). I’m not sure that there were going for a dark comedy vibe, but I find this movie funny at times, mainly because of how quickly the psychosis both characters share ramps up.

From the PTSD angle, this movie opened my eyes a bit. I was only focusing on military-related PTSD, but PTSD can affect anyone. Peter does claim to have military service, and he also claims they did experiments on him. So it’s easy to say that’s PTSD from military experience. But the problem is that he is shown to be very unreliable. It’s possible he’s suffering from a mental illness and was never even in the military. This made me question including this movie, until I considered Agnes. She lost a child (who was kidnapped while she was distracted at a grocery store), and her life has been terrible ever since. She also has an abusive ex (Harry Connick, Jr.). So it’s fair to say she’s suffering from PTSD, and this is what makes her so susceptible to Peter’s delusions.

Once again, this is not directly stated, and the focus of the film is on the delusions of the main characters. Perhaps this can be the theme that ties all of these films together: PTSD exists and leads to troubling behavior, but there’s not much that can be done about it; you either deal with it, or it consumes you. That’s a depressing way to look at it, but since these films came out before PTSD was focused on, it’s a legitimate statement about the disorder. Back to Bug, specifically.

I love this movie for the performances. Ashley Judd is great in a refreshingly complex role. But Michael Shannon steals the show. I had known a little of his work before, but this made him stand out to me. He always looks a little unhinged in general, but he’s set loose in this film. His reveal after the room has been covered in foil and it lit by bug zappers, is equal parts horrifying and hilarious. Once again, maybe I’m the one who’s messed up, but I always laugh at that moment.

From a directing standpoint, Friedkin does a great job at creating paranoia. The stuff inside the motel is already there from the source material. But Friedkin is able to use exterior shots that seem to be closing in on the motel room, as if there really is some conspiracy happening. It adds another layer of “what’s real?” to the film. And as far as that goes, it’s left up to the audience what’s real and what’s not, for the most part. That ambiguity allows the film to transcend the other movies in this trilogy, making it the most interesting of the three.

Sure, Bug is another Friedkin film that focuses on the effect of PTSD rather than the cause or treatment, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling or powerful. And the style of the film shows that Friedkin, even late in his career, is capable of growing as a filmmaker.

Random Thought

Ashley Judd working through the conspiracy with Shannon is a standout scene. The “I am the super mother bug!” line is a bit much, but her crazed thought process coupled with Shannon’s manic coaching, is great.

Last Thought on the Trilogy*

*For some reason this last paragraph will only post in bold. I'm not skilled enough in HTML to fix it, so just assume that this last paragraph is more important than the rest...

There seems to be a pattern to the handling of PTSD in these films. In Rules, there are plenty of scenes establishing what has happened to the characters, but the PTSD is minor. In The Hunted, there is only the opening scene to establish what happened, but the PTSD is major. In Bug, we get almost know info (that we can trust, anyway), and the PTSD has turned Shannon and Judd completely insane. Even though Friedkin probably did not choose these films based on the PTSD elements, he still created a connected trilogy that is possible to analyze on a PTSD level while also working as standalone films about completely different issues. They alsy work as a good reason to own films, even if they're not my favorites. I was able to revisit these films and look at them in a completely different way than before. I would not have done that if I had to pay to stream one of them (not to mention that I used the DVD extras for the article). Instead, I was going to look at just one film and realized I could look at two others that I own. My collection mainly collects dust, but situations like this make it worth it to keep it.

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