Agnes White is a woman who is probably in her 30’s, but who already seems to be at the tail end of a lifetime of bad choices. When we first meet her, she’s holed up in an unkempt room in a shabby motel, off an anonymous highway just outside of Nowheresville Oklahoma. She has a few possessions, a friend and a job, but any other connection to the living world seems to have been severed. She’s lost; a woman slowly bottoming out who hasn’t quite given up on life just yet. When the phone starts ringing and she picks it up but no one answers, she has a pretty good idea that it’s her most recent bad decision: an abusive husband who has recently been paroled from prison. The creeping fingers of paranoia start to set in early and you just have a feeling it’s the beginning of the end for poor Agnes.
Her friend eventually introduces her to a decent looking and quiet man named Peter Evans. He seems nice, but he’s a stranger and there’s something creepy about him. There’s a haunted look to his eyes and his social skills seem a little bit off. If Agnes had a shred of self worth left, she would probably reject him, but she’s a desperate woman who isn’t on top of her game and at least he’s not mean to her. Together they do drugs, they make love, they lay in bed talking. Things are going well and just when you’re almost fooled into thinking Agnes might actually be finding some kind of happiness, Peter discovers a bug in their bed. He holds it up to the lamplight as plain as day. She can’t see it, but he says it’s there and that’s good enough for her. Agnes doesn’t know it yet, but this is where things really begin to turn sour.
They spray and they spray some more but the bugs begin to multiply. They hang flypaper all over the motel room, but nothing helps. As the bugs spread, so does the paranoia. They scratch themselves raw. Peter begins to suspect that the bugs are in his blood laying eggs and that he was intentionally infected as part of an experiment while he was hospitalized during a stint in the military. He fears if they go outside, the military will find him and haul him back in to resume their testing.
A stronger woman would probably run for her life by this time, but Agnes is not strong. She is frighteningly easily drawn into this paranoid spiral and it begins to merge with her own. As she finally begins to lose grip on reality, all of the horrible things that have happened to her seem to make a sick sort of sense. The crazier things get, the more they finally seem to fit into a logical pattern she can control. If only they could rid themselves of the bugs…
This is William Friedkin’s new film and it’s called, appropriately: Bug. It is a gripping psychological thriller based on a successful play by Tracy Letts. It is a good film but its roots on the stage lead directly to one of its primary flaws. Bug never quite shakes the stagy quality of some of the dialogue and this is a liability. Lines that might play well in the suspended reality and distant remove of the stage sometimes seem stiff and artificial when splashed up on the super-real big screen. Also, though well played by Michael Shannon who originated the role on stage, Peter Evans feels like a stock paranoid conspiracy theorist straight out of an episode of The X-Files, complete with a plan to ward off harmful transmissions with tin foil. However, the heart of the film lies with Agnes. Performed with a fearless gusto by Ashley Judd, the degree to which you’re drawn into her character will probably largely determine your reaction to the film. I was drawn in almost completely. Agnes is pathetic, but Judd makes it is easy to empathize with this woman who is just looking for a safe harbor in which she can make some sense of her life. In the right environment, Agnes could probably turn her life around. Unfortunately, Peter Evans is not the lifesaver she needs. She grabs onto him, but you have the feeling he’s just going to pull her down faster.
Audiences who vividly remember director Friedkin’s The Exorcist (and who above a certain age doesn’t?) might be expecting more of a horror film with Bug and indeed the title implies as much. Younger audiences raised on more viscerally brutal modern films might be bored by the largely psychological terror offered here. Though Bug has horror elements and moments of gore, this isn’t a hammer blow to the head. This is a film that does its work by burrowing under your skin, laying eggs and freaking you out. It is a creepy, disturbing and suspenseful film. It is often unpleasant, but it is always interesting.
Though I liked Bug, I’ve had a hard time reviewing it because I saw it under less than perfect circumstances. The Friday night suburban audience I saw it with seemed united in their disinterest in the film. Every 5 or 10 minutes someone would get up to go to the bathroom or to the snack bar. Each time someone would leave or return, the auditorium door would either squeak shut slowly or remain stuck part way open, allowing the hubbub of the people waiting in line for one of the 1500 or so showings of Pirates of the Caribbean 3 outside to leak in and rip me out of the movie. Audience interest also wasn’t helped by the uneasy balance Bug struck at times between humor and horror. Most of the humor was front loaded or used to relieve the at times unbearable tension, but the audience seemed incapable of shifting gears and continued to laugh when the film ramped up into intense mode and the shit finally hit the fan.
Perhaps the audience had it right and I had it wrong. Maybe they just thought the movie was stupid. Maybe it was. On the other hand, maybe if I’d seen the film under better circumstances, I would’ve liked it even more. I’ll probably never know, but I’m going to give Bug the benefit of a doubt.
Bug: USA 2006. Directed by William Friedkin. Written by Tracy Letts, based upon his play. Starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Lynn Collins and Harry Connick, Jr. 1 hour 41 minutes. MPAA Rating: R for some strong violence, sexuality, nudity, language and drug use. 3 stars (out of 5).