There’s a moment in Bug during which I was so significantly moved, I almost crumbled in my theater seat. It comes when Agnes (Ashley Judd), the worn out, drug abusing, but still beautiful (in that way only certain kinds of damaged women can be) realizes she might be a alone again. As her newfound future partner in psychosis, Peter (Michael Shannon) leaves her; she closes herself in her seedy motel bathroom and sobs.
But there's more to the story.
First, I'll return to sitting in the theater -- back in 2007, when William Friedkin's Bug left many viewers confused, even angry. Based on the picture's previews and poster art, audience's unfamiliar with the acclaimed Tracy Letts play thought they were going to see another Saw or Hostel -- any kind of Lions Gate horror film would do. But they saw something far superior, and in the small audience I experienced the movie with -- they didn't appreciate it. In the dark (I watched the picture alone, on my birthday, which was an oddly perfect personal present) I heard jeers, witnessed walk-outs and when the credits rolled, grumblings of "wanting my money back." Wow, I thought. This is one of the best movies I've seen all year and certainly, one of Friedkin's finest. What in the world? Could it really boil down to -- not enough bugs?
Happily this response didn't affect Friedkin's relationship with Letts. The French Connection, Exorcist, Sorcerer, Cruising director's newest film, Killer Joe (playing Venice and Toronto), was written by Letts (from his 1991 play), who after Bug (the long running play and short release movie), became both a Tony and Pulitzer Award-winning playwright (for his brilliant August: Osage County). Letts, the actor has also earned raves as George in the Steppenwolf Theatre's production of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's no surprise (clearly) that the man and artist understands the complexities, the often insane, yet wholly human complexities of relationships, and how this extends further-- into our nightmares and reality -- and the blurring of the two. As Martha states in Woolf: "Truth or illusion George, you don't know the difference."
Which leads me back to the under-valued Bug and Judd's Agnes, so fearful of the void. Though Agnes presents herself as a tough cookie, she realize she needs Shannon's Peter. He’s a lot smarter and sensitive than her ex-husband (a bullying, abusive Harry Connick Jr.) and in spite of some of his crazy rants, she likes the way he talks.
And then... he returns and reveals his distinctly special problem. The reunion of these lovers is so weirdly romantic and such a relief, that you almost forget it will be poor Agnes’ undoing. If love is mad, if love is crazy, then Agnes and Peter are, as Laura Dern stated, “Wild at heart and weird on top.”
So begins their folie à deux but one that moves beyond these lost soul’s tortured union and into modern ideas of conspiracies, post war insanity, disease, infected blood and the kind of paranoia that can spread like wildfire once the flame is (quite literally) ignited. And of course, it’s also about bugs, aphids to be specific, though they’re not swooping down on the pair a la Mimic -- they’re horrifyingly in their blood, brain, skin, teeth and, even more terrifying, we can’t see them. We simply have to believe. Or rather, we have to want to believe. I certainly wanted to believe, just so these people’s lives would make the labyrinthian sense they so desire.
Bug is a movie that will baffle, excite, horrify and anger those who can’t stay with its unwavering intensity. It will even in moments provoke titters, purposefully so, which should be honored rather than mocked -- obsession can be very, very funny. Bug is a rare picture that balances realistic, literal psychological horror with metaphorical meaning with small punches of satirical wit. It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen and so skillfully, artfully executed and so brilliantly acted (Judd and Shannon especially) that the result is less movie and more wide awake fever dream. If you can relate to paranoia and desperate love in any way, you will meld into this movie -- and that only lends to its horror. It is (I’m not going to mince words here), a masterpiece.
The drama starts via the way most people hook up -- through a friend. Judd’s Agnes meets Shannon’s Peter after her lesbian friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) introduces the two and drops him at Agnes’s depressing hovel. She’s immediately intrigued but aware he’s a bit strange (after overhearing the women argue about his weirdness, he repeats “I’m not an axe murderer” -- his timing with this line is like his simultaneously subtle and whacked out performance: perfect). He admits that he makes others uncomfortable (“I pick up things unapparent”) but Agnes is refreshed by his shy, though straightforward sweetness. She’s also, eventually open to his unending beliefs about bugs, egg-sacks, insects implanted in his body via the military or whatever else. And though she argues at first, she will more than believe, becoming necessary and complicit -- partly out of love for her man, partly out of her own burgeoning psychosis (which we question is brought on by speedy drugs and her own past trauma) and partly because, well, maybe there’s something to this bug thing. She is hearing crickets in her room, she’s being bitten and helicopters are flying overhead. Or maybe not.
The fact that Friedkin (and Letts) leaves a small crack open for interpretation (and I really think he does -- especially when the weird-o drug taking doctor comes for a visit) gives the film an extra power and poignancy. Friedkin is a master with sound (you hear those damn bugs so much they burrow into your brain too) and, when in top form, showcases a kind of visceral suspense that, like The Exorcist, feeds from possession. These lovers are quite obviously, afflicted, and so the tension doesn’t come in simply their journey to the other side of sanity, it comes in how far they will go. And where will they go? And will they figure it out? And what are they going to carve out of their body next?
He also bleeds powerhouse performances from his actors. Shannon is alarming, attractive, mysterious, vulnerable, oddly charming -- easy to fall in love with even when all signs say "run away." And, Judd who, when given the chance, can be one of the bravest and most electrifying actresses working. Moving from a quiet, seen-it-all cynicism to a deranged, focused conspiratorial rambling, her transformation is without question. In her earlier moments, you can see that spark of insanity so, when it blooms to full flower, you truly believe she’s exiting the smothering cocoon of her life. She’s found her purpose. She's also attempting to reconcile her damaged past and neglect in one of the most destructive, insane ways possible. But in Judd's hands, she’s so good, so real, so with her character (my God, just the way Judd sits on a couch is remarkably natural) she becomes, in a tragic, twisted way, inspirational.
Some critics believe her character not too bright -- easily led by a sick manipulator who feeds off her to justify and complete his mental illness -- but I don’t see her in such simplistic terms. The real tragedy is she’s stuck in a dead end, trashy life and like a lot of smart “crazy” people, able to make that leap, able to embrace the bizarre, able to question the very nature of things, be it love or the government or some other vast conspiracy, to the point of no return. Like the movie, Agnes knows that nothing, even bugs, can be that easy -- nothing. And, depending on how you express it, understanding such complications is both comforting and crazy. As she says, “Guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody.” Yes, indeed.