Bug directed by William Friedkin
As I sat down to watch a movie in my living room last night, my hometown of NYC — not to mention the rest of America and around 180 countries around the globe — was in the middle of the Great COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. As of yesterday evening, there were around 67,000 cases in my city, over 1 million worldwide, and almost 60,000 deaths internationally. The peak has not yet been reached here, and fear and uncertainty reign, with no end to the scourge in sight. And, of course, the inevitable paranoia and conspiracy theories are beginning to emerge, with all kinds of crackpots coming out and declaring the virus to be some kind of foreign plot, and with NIAID head Dr. Anthony Fauci even requiring a security detail to guard against various wackadoodle threats. This, then, was the backdrop in which I sat down to watch some escapist entertainment last night. And what a film I chose for my evening’s leisure: Bug, in which bizarre theories involving insects and disease and government manipulation are espoused by a pair of characters who are very far gone down the road of insanity. Or … are they? Bug (not to be confused with the mutant cockroach film Bug from 1975) was initially given a wide release in May 2007, after a few select showings at venues such as the Cannes Film Festival. Its director, William Friedkin, who had previously helmed such gripping suspense and horror outings as The French Connection (1971), The Exorcist (1973), Sorcerer (1977), Cruising (1980), and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), would later go on to say that the film was NOT an exercise in horror, although any person who manages to make it through this wringer might feel inclined to disagree.
In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a hard-partying woman who works in a honky-tonk (lesbian?) bar and lives in a seedy motel in the middle of Nowheresville, Oklahoma. Indeed, in the film’s early aerial zoom shot, we see that this motel really does sit in the middle of an extremely large stretch of empty terrain. We soon learn that Agnes’ abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr., here looking more buff, toned and dangerous than you’ve probably ever seen him), has recently gotten out of jail, after having served a two-year stretch for armed robbery, and that the couple had once suffered the loss of their young son, who had mysteriously disappeared in a supermarket. Agnes’ best friend and fellow waitress, R.C. (Lynn Collins), introduces her to a strange, soft-spoken young man one evening, a drifter named Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), who says that he can pick up on things that others can’t. Agnes and Peter begin a tentative relationship of sorts, each feeding off the other’s loneliness and isolation. But after sleeping together for the first time, things start to get a little strange. Peter begins to see tiny aphids everywhere in Agnes’ run-down apartment, and soon confesses the truth to her: He had been the subject of biological experiments at the hands of the U.S. Army after serving in the Gulf War, and now has bugs crawling around inside his body! Eventually, in one of the film’s several hard-to-watch sequences, Peter decides that his current toothache is due to these insidious bugs, and thus takes a pair of pliers and pulls the offending teeth out!
When a man named Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O’Byrne) arrives at the motel, claiming to be a physician who is only trying to bring Peter back to the asylum (Evans is an escaped mental patient, he maintains), Peter is prepared with a butcher knife straight out of Hitchcock’s Psycho, in the film’s second hard-to-watch sequence. At this point in the film, Agnes has also begun to descend into paranoia and to buy into Peter’s story. The two have converted their little apartment into a tinfoil-wrapped grotto, in the belief that the metal foil will disable the bugs’ ability to report back to the government, and flypaper hangs from everywhere. In what is perhaps the film’s most flabbergasting sequence, the two begin to concoct amazing theories as to what is happening, involving the government having kidnapped Agnes’ child, the use of bugs to conquer the world, the Jim Jones cult and so on. As the viewer watches in increasing astonishment, the realization comes that all of this cannot end well … and it surely does not…
The screenplay for Bug was written by Tracy Letts (who would later be the author of the play August: Osage County in 2007, filmed in 2013), based on his stage production of 1996, in which Shannon had also starred. And how any actor could possibly perform a role such as that of Peter Evans night after night is quite beyond me! His character in the film, as well as Agnes’ character, eventually rises to such heights of forceful emoting that the viewer simply cannot believe what he/she is watching. No wonder Roger Ebert once wrote that the film’s leads “…achieve a kind of manic intensity that’s frightening not just in itself but because you fear for the actors…” Evans and Judd both give performances here of Oscar-caliber merit, their thesping really putting over what in lesser hands might be a ridiculous conceit. Judd is completely unglamorized here, appearing with no makeup, her hair often a mess, slatternly, and even seen sitting on the toilet. Even still, her essential gorgeousness manages to shine through. (“You’re beautiful,” Peter tells her at their initial meeting, to the woman’s incredulity.) She makes us sense her character’s loneliness and frustration, stuck as she is with a dead-end job and with a dangerous ex returning to her door. No wonder she says to Peter, “Guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody.” Addicted to booze, pot and cocaine, endeavoring to kill the pain of the loss of her son over two years before, she is a most pitiful character indeed, and Judd makes us feel her sorrow without sentimentality.
And speaking of all those drugs and assorted painkillers, one must wonder if the reason why Agnes is so susceptible to Peter’s crackpot theories is due to those mind-altering substances, or if there is perhaps another reason. Whether or not Peter is indeed insane or not is a matter left ambiguous by the filmmakers, and indeed, there are several interpretations that might come to mind. I’m not sure if Letts is telling us that drugs make one more likely to buy into crackpot notions, or if perhaps Agnes was a bit far gone even before the events of the film begin. Conversely, is it just possible that Peter is actually correct as regards his theories, and that the aphids in the motel room (insects that we never actually get a glimpse of) are actually sending messages to the U.S. government? It is all very strange and mysterious, to be sure.
It strikes me that perhaps I have not given you a sense of how very bizarre and menacing the atmosphere in this film is, an atmosphere that grows increasingly more so as events proceed. Friedkin, as I mentioned, does not consider this a horror film, but there are assuredly at least three sequences in which horrible events do transpire, and the psychological horror is very very real. The film, largely shot (in just three weeks, reportedly) in what is basically one set, Agnes’ motel apartment, is intense and claustrophobic, and it must be said that the picture does reveal its stage origin; it often feels like a filmed theatrical performance, which only augments that intensity. Bug is surely not a pleasant experience to sit through, and indeed, I cannot recommend it unreservedly for all viewers. The squeamish ones should certainly take a pass here, and those who are put off by unpleasant visuals, gore, nudity, foul language and general strangeness would best be advised to look elsewhere for their evening’s entertainment. This movie really is pretty sick stuff, and pretty far out there … and that’s not exactly a bad thing, as far as I’ve long been concerned. The film has been expertly put together by a team of talented pros both before and behind the cameras, and if you sit tight and brace yourself in for the duration, I think you will find that you are in store for one helluva unforgettable ride.
Several questions remain unanswered by the time the end credits roll, such as: Who has been making those constant hang-up phone calls to Agnes in the middle of the night? Whatever DID happen to Agnes’ son, who had vanished in that supermarket? What is the significance of that dead body that we see as bookend shots at the film’s beginning and end? Why does Friedkin show us a shot of the missing son’s toys as the film closes? And, of course, which, if any, of Peter’s wild claims is true? A lot of food for thought and debate here, with no clear-cut answers, and similar, in a way, to Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film Mother!, which also grows increasingly flabbergasting as it proceeds. However you look at Bug, though, I guarantee that you will not soon be forgetting it. This is one case of insect infestation that is NOT a job for Terminix…