Movies: Bug (2006)

I saw Bug back when it was released in theaters in 2007 (it had actually made its debut in spring of 2006 at Cannes), and it really knocked my socks off, so for a long time I had been wanting to revisit it for my movie review series, and lo and behold, I finally got around to it. It’s not exactly a horror movie, though I’m not really sure what else I’d call it; it’s usually classified as a psychological thriller, which I guess is also kind of accurate, but Bug is definitely one of those genre-defying films that I tend to really enjoy.

Directed by William Friedkin (best known for The Exorcist, of course) and based on an award-winning stage play by Tracy Letts, Bug is an intensely claustrophobic character study that details a descent into madness, or more specifically how one person’s madness (or is it?) can infect someone else under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Set almost entirely in a single, grungy motel room and featuring only a handful of characters, Bug really benefits from its simmering atmosphere of dread and the all-in fearlessness of its two lead actors, both of whom should have really got some Oscar recognition.

At the beginning of the film, there’s a phenomenal shot of the isolated Rustic Motel off a lonely highway in BFE, Oklahoma; the camera regards the sad little place from far off, so we can not only see how utterly out in the middle of nowhere it is, but we also get the sense that larger forces are watching.

We then close in and meet one of our protagonists, Agnes (or Aggie), played by Ashley Judd. Before we even really know anything about her, we can tell a few things: she lives alone in this run-down dump, she’s desperately lonely, and it’s possible she’s afraid of something or hiding from something. The phone in her room keeps ringing, and she’s reluctant to answer; when she does, no one is on the other end of the line, though she suspects it’s someone named Jerry, and she’s clearly done with his bullshit.

Agnes works at a honky-tonk lesbian bar at the back end of beyond, and her best friend is a fellow employee named R.C. One night after work, R.C. comes to the motel room for a visit, bringing some booze and a mysterious stranger they met at the bar: a somewhat reticent man by the name of Peter (played by Michael Shannon, reprising his role from the stage version). While the two women drink and shoot the shit, Peter watches them, somewhat bemusedly, not seeming to want to intrude on their fun. He awkwardly tells Agnes she’s beautiful, and he doesn’t seem threatening, exactly…just odd, and maybe not used to talking to people. Agnes, for her part, is as weirded out by receiving compliments as Peter obviously is at giving them; it’s pretty clear that somebody has done a number on this woman’s self-worth over the years.

R.C. gets called away to deal with a family matter, and Peter says he’ll leave too, but Agnes asks him to stay for one more drink, intrigued by his reserve. He tells her he isn’t really after sex, as he’s not interested in it, but he’s lonely just as she is, and wouldn’t mind a friend. Once she finds out he doesn’t really have a place to stay, she offers him the couch in her room, and he takes it gladly, gentlemanly as ever.

In a bit of foreshadowing, Peter hears something that sounds like a cricket chirping in the room, though Agnes doesn’t hear it at first. They search all over, but can’t find the supposed insect, until finally Agnes narrows it down to the smoke detector, figuring its batteries must be dead. Peter busts it and throws it out.

The next morning when Agnes wakes up, someone’s in the shower; she assumes it’s Peter, but then her ex, Jerry (played by Harry Connick Jr.) comes sleazing out of the bathroom. He’s apparently been released early from prison, where he’s been for the past two years, and Agnes is extremely NOT excited to see him, though he acts as though he’s just going to move right back in and pick up where they left off. She tells him she hates him and he needs to get the fuck out, and he punches her in the face, doing the whole abuser dance of “look what you made me do.”

Shortly after, Peter returns from a trip to the store to get breakfast, and Jerry acts like an asshole to him before bugging out, telling Agnes he has some business to take care of “down south” for a couple weeks, but then he’ll be coming back to move in. After he leaves, Agnes tells Peter that she was married to Jerry for a long time and that she was still afraid of him. She also says that they had a son, Lloyd, who disappeared from a grocery store when he was six, almost a decade before. It’s now easy to see why Aggie is so damaged, drinking and doing drugs pretty much every day, living this dead-end existence.

Since Agnes and Peter are both lost souls, they develop something of a romantic connection, which initially seems nice until you slowly start to realize that Peter is severely, tragically mentally ill. He starts with the standard low-level conspiracy-theory stuff about machines controlling everyone’s thoughts and the bed crawling with tiny aphids that only he can see. But as the story goes on, his paranoia drastically escalates; he starts believing that the bugs are infesting his blood and eating him from inside, and he takes to trying to dig the little suckers out, looking at the non-existent things under a microscope. He also believes that the bugs were purposely implanted in him by the Army; we find out that he has gone AWOL because he became convinced that he and other soldiers were being experimented on during the Gulf War.

We skip ahead a couple of weeks to the time of Jerry’s return, and things have certainly changed in the ol’ motel room since last time he was here: the whole place is now festooned with no-pest strips, and the walls and furniture are completely covered with aluminum foil, all the better to keep the “bugs” from transmitting their thought-control waves.

It also becomes evident that Agnes—depressed and vulnerable and terrified of abandonment—has become completely consumed by Peter’s delusions as well, and the pair of them have isolated themselves from the outside world, feeding off and encouraging one another’s intensifying derangement. It all leads to some pretty extreme places (DIY dentistry, murder, self-immolation), but the fascinating thing about the movie is that the story leaves a tiny bit of room for doubt to creep in on the part of the viewer: if this is all in their heads, the film seems to whisper, then who made all those mysterious phone calls? What’s the deal with the helicopters buzzing the motel from time to time? Who exactly is this Dr. Sweet fellow, who helps himself to some of Agnes’s drugs and somehow seems to know about her missing son? It’s left somewhat ambiguous, in fact, as to how many of the events occurred as we see them, and how many were completely imagined by Peter and Agnes. This was a great aspect of the story, I thought, because it put the viewer in a similar position to the characters, and demonstrated how easy it can be to get sucked into these completely bonkers conspiracy theories if all the circumstances align.

Although the play was written in 1996, not long after the Gulf War, and dealt somewhat with issues of that era’s political propaganda and the reported “Gulf War syndrome” of many returning veterans, its focus on being drawn down conspiratorial rabbit holes to the detriment of your own sanity is as relevant today as ever. Peter’s character is tragic, not only because he suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, but because some of the historical precedents he comes up with to back up his outlandish assertions are true: MKUltra and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, just to give two examples. So it’s simple to see how someone whose mental health is not the best could consider the truth of a handful of nefarious theories to be indicative that all of them are true, and that he himself plays a central role in a massive web of interconnected evils.

By the same token, Agnes is tragic because all she wanted was a friend: someone who would be there for her, listen to her, not really ask for anything in return. Because of her own past, she couldn’t deal with being alone, and being with someone who eventually yanks his own teeth out because he thinks there are egg sacs in there is better than not having anyone at all. Plus it’s much easier to deal with a rootless, unhappy life if you believe that larger forces are controlling your every move, even if those forces are malevolent.

If you’re into disturbing, psychological dramas with an intense focus on just a couple of characters, then Bug is definitely an underseen gem you need to jump right on. Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd are incredible in it; both of them totally commit to the insanity, and the scenes of their wildly unspooling rationality toward the end of the film are pretty breathtaking (and horrifying) to see. If you like your horror of a more traditional bent, then look elsewhere, but for everyone else, this is an acting tour-de-force, and a pointed examination of deteriorating sanity and shared madness.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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