Bug is one hell of a motion picture experience, a nail-bitingly intense and thematically heavy piece of work that’s guaranteed to polarise audiences. Based on the acclaimed play by Tracy Letts, who also provided the screenplay, this is not some cheap fright-fest about extra-terrestrial bugs; rather, it’s a claustrophobic psychological thriller which provides a dismal look at mental instability, hyperbolic paranoia and abusive relationships. Over the course of the film’s 100-minute duration, director William Friedkin meticulously peels away all layers of normality, with the primary location of a low-rent motel room turning into a nightmarish vision of Americana gone wrong. Bug will not work for everyone since its tone is bleak, its script is talky, and the pacing is unhurried and deliberate, but this reviewer found the experience uniquely enthralling.
A desperate woman working as a waitress in a lesbian bar, Agnes White (Ashley Judd) is on edge after her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) is released from prison. Indulging in booze and drugs, Agnes is introduced to the shy and quirky Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), and the pair immediately hit it off. Agnes lets him stay the night in her seedy motel room, which leads to the two striking up a sexual relationship. While in bed together one night, Peter discovers microscopic bugs which are biting him. He becomes convinced that a bug infestation has broken out, and believes that the invisible insects are coming from his bloodstream, planted by the government when he was involved in scientific experiments.
Although a couple of short story beats occur in other locations, Bug for the most party retains the play’s single setting of Agnes’ motel room. The idea of a single setting is a troubling proposition for a feature, but Letts and Friedkin keep the pace brisk and the events interesting. Bug cannot be simply labelled as a horror film, as it’s more of an exercise in psychological terror and dark comedy, though it has some genuinely horrific moments. It’s perhaps best described as a character study of the relationship between a lonely, abused woman and a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic tendencies. We get to observe the two as they gradually grow insane, with Agnes making excuses for being with Peter no matter how delusional he grows, and with Peter developing into a danger for himself and others.
Bug ran the risk of merely feeling like a filmed stage play, but Friedkin and cinematographer Michael Grady embraced the medium’s possibilities. A lot of close-ups are used during the more intense character-based moments, allowing us to absorb the nuances of all of the performances and get more invested in the action. What’s extraordinary about the film is the way it gradually and methodically builds its characters before all hell breaks loose. In fact, Bug starts out as an offbeat story about two strangers who develop somewhat of a romance, while a side conflict presents itself in the form of Agnes’ ex-husband. It then essentially transforms into another film entirely. However, the sudden descent into madness doesn’t feel choppy or awkward thanks to Friedkin’s strong filmmaking sleight of hand; if anything, it makes the picture more shocking. The final scene is particularly gripping, as tension levels continue to rise to an almost unbearable level. It’s hard to so much as take a breath until the end credits begin to roll.
With the entire film unfolding in a small space and with Friedkin’s direction being predominantly unfussy, the real power of the picture emanates from the performances, all of which are excellent. Judd sheds every trace of movie star glamour in playing Agnes; it’s a bare-all role in terms of both the nudity and the character’s raw emotional state. It’s not an attractive performance, but it is compelling and powerful. But it’s Shannon who walks away with the entire picture. Shannon had already played Peter in the original play, and was only a small-time cinema actor at the time. With Shannon’s subsequent rise to fame, it’s fascinating to go back and see the actor here in perhaps his greatest performance to date. Slightly odd-looking and creepy yet strangely endearing, Shannon is top-notch here, presenting an astonishing portrait of a radical mental meltdown. It’s hard to overstate just how great Judd and Shannon are, and it’s difficult to believe that they were both overlooked at the Academy Awards.
Bug is not strictly about bugs, but Letts and Friedkin do milk the title for everything it’s worth. At the beginning, Agnes is constantly bugged by telephone calls, and the story is about Agnes and Peter trying to get rid of the bugs that are apparently infesting their residence and their body. Peter even grows to believe that electronic bugs were implanted into him by the government. This is a very strange and unique film all in all, and it’s hard to outright recommend. Yes, it’s superb and it deserves to be seen, but those unprepared to experience what Friedkin offers may ultimately walk away disappointed. Anyone prepared to approach Bug with an open mind should give it a whirl, especially if they like original, experimental movies.