Bug is an extremely unpleasant movie. Not necessarily gross, although there’s some stuff in there that made me wince. What makes Bug so unpleasant is the grimy immediacy of its environments, the inexorable downward trajectory of its story and the shocking emotional intimacy it creates with its deranged characters. What makes Bug so special is that it marks an incredible recovery for director William Friedkin, who has been a cinematic footnote for decades.
Unpleasant is not a bad word, by the way. Not every movie should be about sending you home with a smile, reassured in the supremacy of love and right. That’s not the world as it always is, and good art should be willing to show the world as it is. Of course the world isn’t always as ugly as Bug, but next week Knocked Up opens, so you can refill your optimism there. In the meantime Bug is a movie intent on getting under skin in much the same way its protagonists think insects have gotten under theirs; it’s a movie that gnaws on you long after you’ve walked out of the theater. And I think there’s a chance that after you see this movie you’ll get into bed and turn off the lights and start to feel phantom creepy crawlies under the sheets with you.
There’s some misinformation to clear up ahead of time: Bug is not, in the terms that we tend to use today, a horror film. People looking for a movie about an insidious bug infestation or satanic cicadas are going to have to look elsewhere. Bug is a psychological terror film about the thin walls of sanity and the shared delusions of society we all carry around with us. It’s a scary movie, but in an ontological sense.
Based on a play, Bug is a small film. There are only a handful of characters, and most of the action takes place inside a long stay motel room. Ashley Judd is Agnes, a woman working as a cocktail waitress at a gay bar; she lives alone in the motel and gets drunk and stoned. She’s lonely and doesn’t know how to reach out to people; she’s completely emotionally isolated.
A fellow waitress introduces her to a strange man she met recently but doesn’t really know. Played by Michael Shannon, who looks like an even more menacing and less boyish Malcolm McDowell, Peter is strange in every sense of the word. He’s unfailingly polite and restrained, even when Agnes’ abusive ex-husband Jerry, played with grungy relish by Harry Connick Jr, shows up and bullies him around. Peter’s no small guy, and he hints at a military background, but he lets Jerry do what he please, including hitting Agnes.
Agnes and Peter become close, and then sleep together. And then things get weird. Peter’s history is mysterious – he’s on the run, but won’t say from whom. And then, right after they have sex, Peter finds something in the bed. It’s aphid, he says, a bloodsucker. And there’s not just one. They’re everywhere. They’re inside him, breeding in his flesh.
Agnes and Peter’s relationship, as you can imagine, is doomed. But Bug doesn’t become a woman in jeopardy movie – Agnes isn’t trying to get away from this lunatic. She gets sucked into his insanity. The film builds intensity to a fever pitched third act that’s deranged and frightening. Friedkin amps his actors up to punishing levels; sometimes the movie teeters right on the edge of becoming hilarious. But Shannon, who originated the role of Peter on stage, and Judd, who reminds us that before she was starring in shitty serial killer movies she was a real actress, never quite let it tip over. The third act is like watching the two of them wrestle on a seesaw at the top of a hundred foot tall pillar – the wrong move would send either or both of them plummeting. It’s awesome thespian daredevilry.
There are five speaking parts in Bug, but there’s a sixth character – that motel room. Friedkin creates a sweaty, claustrophobic world that’s unsettling right from the start. He begins the movie with an epic helicopter shot and zoom in over the expanses of the Oklahoma countryside, slowly zeroing in on the location where we’re going to be trapped for the rest of the movie. It’s a remarkable way to induce claustrophobia.
Bug is not a movie for everyone. If you’re looking for characters you can cling to and identify with, this isn’t your movie. If you’re looking for a story that offers any hope or redemption (spoiler: except for the abusive husband, who is the hero of the piece. How great is that?), forget it. If you’re looking for a movie that will unsettle you, will creep you out, will keep popping into your mind days and weeks after you’ve seen it, Bug is the movie you’ve been waiting for. It’s the kind of movie nobody makes anymore because nobody wants to see them.
8 out of 10