Part of me and my girlfriend’s 30-movie Halloween marathon. This review was originally published in August 2018.
Based on the play by the great Tracy Letts (who also serves as the writer for the film adaptation), Bug drops in on the life of a woman named Agnes (Ashley Judd), who lives a life of fear and rations in a rundown motel in Oklahoma. Working as a waitress in a gay bar, Agnes is on the run from her abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), and is constantly harassed by phone-calls she believes are from him but cannot confirm this because there is never anyone on the other end. She finds some solace in Peter (Michael Shannon), a gentle drifter whose awkward ways strike her as amiable, a pleasantness in a fellow man she hasn’t experienced in God only knows how long.
As they grow closer, Peter grows less and less stable; his grasp on reality looser. He pulls Agnes into accepting his delusions regarding little aphids and arachnids around the motel being planted by the U.S. government. Peter claims that during the time he spent in the military, he got a look into the surveillance systems used by government officials, and is now convinced that insects serve as their insidious tools to monitor him. Soon, both run the risk of falling more and more out of touch with reality; at least the one we’ve been conditioned to see, as Peter alludes.
Bug is an entrapping little mongrel of a film with an itchy and unclean setting that perfectly compliments its mood. Its tattered setting and unreliable characters feed into a verisimilitude built on shaky ground that the viewer can either question at every turn or go along for the ride. Trying to stay in-tune with this film is something else mainly because Letts so frequently pumps the accelerator, heightening the tension and driving up the anxiety. Thankfully, Letts gets the privilege of working alongside director William Friedkin (The Exorcist). Friedkin is a master at setting scenes and crafting ominous sequences using classic suspense and intrigue. He does so here in a boldly haunting way, emphasizing the claustrophobia of the stage and coaching the actors to have venom in both their actions and words.
It cannot be overstated how well the actors sell their respective roles over the course of Bug. Friedkin knows how to handle a scuzzy setting and Letts can create dialog that is simultaneously rhythmic and uneasy (his later play, Superior Donuts, is an intriguing hybridization of those two traits), but the efforts of both men might’ve been squandered had they not been blessed with such a talented cast. Ashley Judd is stupendous playing a woman who descent into madness is a slowburn, gradual process as opposed to an overnight change of perspective. Furthermore, Letts writes her not as an easily swayed damsel but as a reasonably skeptical woman whose life has been defined by deception and fear. Michael Shannon, who Friedkin fought for when studios claimed they wanted a leading man more “marketable” (as if that was really going to save a film this weird), is exceptional as he’d later go on to be so consistently. Both actors are clearly emboldened by rock-solid material and a screenplay that challenges every fiber of theirs to produce performances as impacting as the film itself.
Bug is ripe for analysis and interpretation. I’m of the opinion much of the wildly designed third act is an allusion crafted in the minds of Agnes and Peter. Moreover, I find the film could be considered a compelling dramatization (or maybe not) of what life might appear to be if you were constantly under the influence of hard drugs (crack, heroin, or methamphetamine). You become a frantic, paranoid shell of your former self, as untrustworthy as the others you see and judge around you, and the chilly visuals during the third act more than once capture a drug-induced vibe. Bug makes the leap from stage to screen terrifically, and even as it traverses over claustrophobic terrain, it somehow feels bigger than its one-setting location. It could be the scope of ideas and conspiracies exchanged by the characters. It could also just be how out of this world everything about this film is.
NOTE: As of this writing, Bug is available to watch on Pluto TV, free of charge.
Starring: Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick, Jr, Lynn Collins, and Brian F. O’Byrne. Directed by: William Friedkin.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!