Agnes (Ashley Judd), a waitress at a lesbian honky tonk in Oklahoma, lives in a run down motel in the middle of nowhere. One night, the phone starts to ring and no one is on the other end of the line. She immediately assumes it is Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), her husband who has recently been released from jail. Her only friend, RC (Lynn Collins), a lesbian waitress at the lesbian honky tonk, introduces Agnes to Peter (Michael Shannon), a drifter. Peter seems to be pretty low key, which is why Agnes agrees to let him stay with her. As they get to know each other, the drifter begins to reveal things about himself. He was once in the Army and recently escaped from a secret hospital where they did experiments on him. Now, he feels like the bugs they have implanted under his skin are starting to break through. Once they break through, they will start to feed on him. Once they start to feed on him, they will also start to feed on Agnes. Thus begins the couple’s spiral down into madness.
Directed by William Friedkin (“The Exorcist”) and based on a play by Tracy Letts, “Bug” effectively builds a lot of tension for the first hour or so, but as Agnes and Peter spiral further down into their madness, the film becomes problematic and almost laughable.
Ashley Judd is actually pretty good as Agnes. From the moment we first see her, laying on her sofa, smoking weed, trying to get her mind wrapped around the anonymous phone calls, we realize this is a woman who has suffered in her life. She now seems content, or at least complacent, to live her life in relative peace, as bad as it is. Every time Judd moves, we get a sense of the weight on Agnes’ life, how bad her life has been, and how content she may be to live a relatively quiet life, no matter how bad it is.
Judd is also fairly unattractive as this woman. Frequently, her hair looks dirty, she wears little or no make-up. She also drinks and smokes heavily, making her appear intensely fatigued.
She finds a certain solace at her job, even though she barely makes enough money to scrape by. But she does make enough money to live in her run down motel room, eat, drink, and get high. She now lives in relative peace, which is why these anonymous phone calls are freaking her out even more. Her bank is a coin purse she stuffs under her mattress after adding her evening’s tips of single $1 bills every night.
Her life has also led her to become more than a little paranoid of strangers, so when the drifter, Peter, is introduced into her life, she is more than a little weary of him. But as she gets to know him, she lets down her defenses and they start to talk, learning a little about each other. As she learns more about him, she becomes more accepting of him. This may seem like a bit of a character development problem, but it really fits. She is so lonely and despondent that any seemingly normal visitor would eventually be welcomed into her home and her life. Simply because she needs the companionship.
As they become friends and become involved in each other’s lives, Agnes begins to hang on Peter’s every word, listening to and believing in everything he has to say. This is also very believable, because Agnes is the type of misguided person who needs to have some guidance, a dominant force in her life. Once she gets this, she latches onto it, for good or bad. This is why the inclusion of the character Jerry (Connick) is so important to the overall fabric of the film. Once we meet him, realize he is an abusive, controlling jerk, we get it. She falls for this type of guy, can’t really escape them.
Michael Shannon plays Peter, the drifter who happens into Agnes’ life. At first, he just seems timid and shy. And this is what draws Agnes to him. But as their relationship develops, he starts to reveal the true extent of his paranoia and Agnes starts to believe in it as well. His performance builds until he is so consumed by his fears, Agnes begins to believe them and adopt them as well. It is an interesting performance because he starts out relatively normal and for a long time, the phobias and problems seep in very slowly.
“Bug” is based on a play, and it has a very play-like feel. Virtually the entire film takes place in Agnes’ seedy motel room. Throughout, there are almost never more than two characters on screen at any one time. These two factors help to further reinforce the feeling of abandonment these characters have and help to explain how impressionable they are.
What doesn’t exactly work are the transitions in the story. As Agnes and Peter become more and more involved in each others lives, as Agnes becomes more and more convinced that what ever Peter says is correct, we see that Peter is, in a way, convincing Agnes to become more like him. But there are stages to this development. At one point, the action shifts and we return to the motel room to find all of the furniture wrapped in plastic. Later, there is another transition and we return to the motel room to find every surface covered in aluminum foil. These moments are probably necessary, but they seem to make a shift that isn’t entirely convincing. It would have been more effective to figure out a way for us to watch the madness progress in real time. As it stands, each of these ‘breaks’ make it seem like Act One is ending and then we will have a brief pause before the curtain rises on Act Two.
Also, the inclusion of aluminum foil, to ‘keep out the transmissions’ is a movie cliché at this point, an idea that was new in the 50s. Why are we still returning to this tired mechanism? Try to figure out something new and terrifying.
Friedkin has directed a couple of classic films, films that have attained this status due to his ability to create suspense and tension. “The Exorcist” is a scary film, but a large part of that can be attributed to the tension he builds between the characters, and with us. “The French Connection” is an enormously suspenseful film because Popeye Doyle (Gene Hackman) is racing to stop a drug deal, building a lot of tension. Friedkin knows his way around these elements and brings them to bear in “Bug”. The first hour or so is all about creating the characters, showing us their lives, and drawing us into their madness. Then, everything goes wrong…
“I am the super bug mother. I am the super bug mother”.
There is no actor on the face of the Earth who could pull off this line and make it believable. Not even Merlyn Streep. And Judd, who is really good in this film, is no Meryl Streep. The line is just laughable and completely obliterates any feeling of suspense and tension previously established. It also serves to completely draw us out of the story and to make us aware of everything going on. Because I was so engrossed in the events happening to Agnes and Peter, I overlooked problems. But from this point forward, that was not possible. The problems begin to outweigh everything else.
And the last act of the film just deteriorates. And manages to get Judd naked, so we can see her nude.
“Bug” is an interesting and well-made exploration of the two main characters. But once things start to fall apart, we realize how tenuous the connections were to begin with. And everything falls apart. Completely.