Directed by William Friedkin
Lions Gate, 2007
By Jess Skinner
There is no great sense of ambiguity in most horror movies. The audience, in the end, wants to see what is supposed to be frightening them, unobstructed. How many went to Cloverfield just to see the monster? Exactly. The monster in William Friedkin’s Bug (2007) is more concept than visible creature; it is forever under the skin of the two main characters, who claim to see an invasion of aphids but find no support among those in their immediate social perimeters.
It is a story about the abandonment of reality, of two people falling apart, seemingly of their own accord. We begin with Agnes (Ashley Judd), living in a motel room on the eve of her husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) returning from jail. That night, her only friend (Lynn Collins) introduces her to Peter (Michael Shannon), a stoic drifter who claims to be seeking nothing but companionship. The audience’s impression of this fellow may vary from eye to eye; he obviously hides shady deeds but seems physically harmless. These people are drawn to each other. Agnes seeks attention without judgment, Peter wishes for someone to tell his story to. As he tells it: he is an Army guinea pig on the run, the patient of a particular doctor, which seems a fabrication until said doctor shows up at their door and makes no attempt to appear benevolent. At mid-point the characters have disintegrated into a savage paranoia, self-consciously over-the-top. They are convinced bugs have invaded their room, and eventually coat everything in blue tinfoil. The confrontation with the enigmatic Dr. Sweet (Brian O’Byrne) is a perfect sequence, as its tense-beyond-belief execution belies other more ridiculous segments. Watching the showdown between these three characters, I see the actor’s recognition and comprehension of just how fucking mad things have gotten. In their great performances, they keep the black humour and the horror in balance.
In conjunction with a highly idiosyncratic script, Judd gives her character a particular arc. When the film begins, Agnes is wounded by the past – an abusive marriage and a missing child – and perhaps waiting for something to take the worst of life away. She is smart and strong, but up against a wall of emotional turmoil. Insanity, in many ways, provides that kind of safe harbour. Despite the strange gallows humour in the story, the performers approach the material with relatively straight faces. This decision allows Judd to give some of the best screen acting I have seen this decade, with conviction and dedication giving a sense of pathos to the absurdity. Peter is probably the only person in however many lonely nights who has shown genuine interest in Agnes. Their attraction also makes sense, even in its final stages of co-dependant alienation.
Although based on a stage play, Bug is conscious of (and perhaps even exploits) the drawbacks of theatricality. The reality of being in a single setting for 100 minutes is that the outside world must be avoided. There is little effort to illustrate the “big picture,” as the point is that to these characters it is becoming less and less important. Here is horror of the interior: physical and mental. Here is a film that, unlike many in its genre, does not require suspension of disbelief to be effective. It is inarguably daring, scary, subversive, and a provocation of the withdrawn – a cautionary tale for hermits.
What makes Bug such a disturbing display is its microcosmic staging – Agnes’s abandonment of reality mirrors any societal de-evolution you could care to name. The result is a general flushing of logic, reason, and stability. The characters’ psychosis is a self-conscious mishmash of fantasies – encroaching government bodies, human experiments, invading insects. At no point is there any palpable indication that all of this is not just going on in the characters’ minds. The physical and emotional violence, therefore, is self-inflicted. Or is it? Who is this Dr. Sweet, and what is he hiding? And what of the noise of helicopters?