dir: William Friedkin
Friedkin has had a many and varied career, probably best known for the classic horror flick The Exorcist. However many and varied his abilities might be, we should, at the very least, expect him to know how to depict all kinds of crazy on the silver screen. Oh, and he does.
Bug is based on a play, and it pretty much looks like a play, since most of it transpires in a single hotel room, with a few outside and aerial shots to make you forget how much like a play it really seems. There are more than two actors, as well, but mostly it’s a two-hander between Ashley Judd, yet again playing a white trash down-and-out with substance abuse problems and poor taste in men, and Michael Shannon, who regularly plays lunatics in movies.
And what this kind of story needs is people that are comfortable with playing absolute lunatics for the majority of a movie’s length.
Agnes (Judd) lives in a hotel room and waits tables in a nearby bar. She is clearly an alcoholic, loves her ganja and doesn’t mind the old crack/crystal meth pipe. In the flick’s opening minutes, we see that she’s probably been on the downward spiral for a while, and the silent, harassing phone calls from, she suspects, her recently paroled ex Jerry (Harry Connick Jr), are tipping her further over the edge.
When she soon meets Peter, she feels, at least for a while, that she’s found some respite from the miseries of the world and the possibility of a healthy relationship with a man who’s not going to abuse her. Peter seems odd but harmless at first, and everything seems to be going okay until they get down and dirty and do some of those exercises that require the presence of other people.
Once that happens, the bugs appear. At first just Peter starts finding these bugs all throughout the hotel room, and though Agnes can’t see them, she believes in their existence, despite, on some level, knowing full well what is going on.
As a study of co-dependence, you could not get an uglier picture of it. Well, Agnes’s ex showing up is pretty ugly, but the depths of consensual insanity that she achieves with Peter are staggering to behold.
It’s not really a surprise when Peter starts seeing bugs everywhere and taking progressively more insane steps to deal with them. The question we keep asking ourselves is: what motivates Agnes to keep going along with it?
Are the bugs real? It’s kind of a redundant question.
For me, the more important signpost is the use of a ringing phone, very cheap from a special effects point of view, in that it’s no special effect at all, to unhinge reality. Agnes hears the phone ringing early on, with no-one on the other end of the line. She curses and rails against the caller, believing it to be Harry Connick Jr. Now, I hate Harry Connick Jr as much as she does, if not more, but there’s a case to be made that he’s not the one making the calls.
In fact, it’s not until Peter later on answers the phone that I realised something else was possibly going on. The phone’s not ringing at all. Agnes’s delusions are possibly a creation of her heavy drinking and drug use, and maybe mental instability arising from whatever causes and factors (like the trauma of losing her son Lloyd several years ago). But before we even know what hazy shade of crazy Peter is capable of, he hears her auditory delusions first.
Or maybe the phone was ringing, I have no idea. It just struck me as indicative of what would follow, in terms of Peter being able to impose his worldview (i.e. mental illness) onto Agnes, with her accepting it willingly because she’s got nothing else going for her.
He speaks early on of being able to see details that other people can’t see, to observe things about people that others would rather hide. Sure, at first it makes him seem like a deductive genius akin to a less butch Sherlock Holmes, but eventually it means that schizophrenia gives Peter the gift that keeps on giving, being an ability to believe incredibly unlikely connections between disparate elements, and to not have to give a damn about reality, because reality becomes a shifting, pliable thing in his grasp.
Films like this can be really dangerous for some people. I say that as someone who has a bit of experience with schizophrenics, or at least people who have exhibited paranoid schizophrenic symptoms at times in their lives. You cannot win with them, at least not for long. Reality proves too simplistic and inconveniently unhelpful to their feelings and state of mind. Everything is connected and everything is connectable, if they just think about it for a moment, and these impossible connections become obviously true, like being hunted by vampires on motor-scooters or having people record your thoughts using laser beams and satellites and broadcasting them to the world, because if they can imagine it, it’s the same as it being true.
It’s terrifying, to me. Thankfully, of all the many problems I may or may not face in the area of personality defects and mental health, this is not one of them. But spending time in this mindset, whether it’s with actual schizophrenics telling me how voices told them to go hitchhiking around Australia naked, or online, where some poor guy spends years of his life trying to convince people that The Truman Show is real and about him, or that MI-5 has been ruining his life and inducing strangers to hurl sexual insults at him on the streets on a daily basis for decades, can be disturbing. Bug takes you into a man’s madness, literally dunks your head in it, and leaves you there, helpless.
Peter’s delusional state and extreme, irrational paranoia is one thing. The disturbing factor is watching another person throw themselves into it, wanting to share the delusion, and believing it to be true despite knowing full well that it’s nothing of the sort.
Even though there are times when, to me, the two actors looked like they were ready to crack up and lose it (I mean in terms of laughing their arses off, not of genuinely going mad), they throw themselves completely into their crazy roles. Judd especially, who’s generally been pretty lazy as an actress and has never really needed to extend her range that far, gives an impressive performance. When she genuinely embraces the craziness, released from the bonds of rationality by her guide on this path, it is pretty chilling. It’s probably one of those kinds of plum roles that actors absolutely love (playing retards, drug addicts, serial killers, grief-stricken parents), because it allows them to overact to a degree that would otherwise get them laughed out of town.
Freedom from the bonds of reality, that horrible liberty from logic, sanity, cause, effect and consequence is a freedom too destructive for any two people to experience for too long, so the ending, horrifying as it is, does not come as a surprise. The director, with steady pacing and a deft use of building tension ensures that the sick, queasy feeling in the audience’s stomach is there before our characters embrace the crazy, and is there long after the final frame. Comparisons with the ‘body horror’ work of Cronenberg aren’t out of place, but they do minimise Friedkin’s achievements here.
It’s not a great film, it’s not even a particularly enjoyable film, but it is riveting.
Go on, embrace the madness.
7 times I spent the night scratching at bugs I hope were actually there out of 10
“I am the super mother bug!” – Bug.