The film Bug is an exercise in trust. The two actors, Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon, aren’t just working without a net; director William Friedkin has denied them the tightrope itself. He films them without gloss, in free fall, in the darkest film since David Lynch’s Lost Highway . The actors and the director have trusted that we, the audience, will follow; but I suspect the reception Bug received in the screening I attended will be typical. Amid the boos, inappropriate laughter, and walkouts, I heard someone proclaim, "That is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in my life."
People often react like that when a horror film has reached them where they didn’t want to be touched. The one doing the reaching is Ashley Judd, whose performance as Agnes is a tour-de-force. Bug ‘s opening aerial shot situates Agnes in a dilapidated motel, close to the highway, but otherwise utterly isolated. Maybe she is turning tricks there; tough to tell. But when we meet her, she is bedraggled, drunk, chain-smoking, and terrorized by a series of hang-up phone calls. Is her violent ex – that’s ex-lover, ex-con – out of prison and coming her way?
Agnes’s friend R.C., Lynn Collins, a lesbian with whom she sometimes runs, brings by the motel a man she picked up at a bar. Michael Shannon’s Peter doesn’t say much. The women incautiously assume that’s because he’s the strong, silent type. But we begin to suspect that Peter has learned to be silent so he won’t frighten people. What does he mean that his father is a preacher, but he doesn’t have a church or any people? Agnes, in her desperate loneliness, isn’t picking up on the warning signs; or maybe she’s always invited trouble through her door.
Many people fear madness because they believe it’s contagious. Under the right circumstances – in extreme loneliness, cut off from outside reality – it can be. Peter is probably a paranoid schizophrenic. He is under the delusion that the motel room is infested with biting bugs, smaller than a flea, burrowing under his skin. Crucially, he catches one and shows it to Agnes, and demands to know if she can see it. She objects, but weakly, like a tired swimmer being pulled down by the undertow. She absolutely cannot be alone again. She is willing to see what Peter sees, if only he will not leave. Thus begins a spiral down through self-mutilation to the consummation you know must follow. The love story is beautiful, terrible, pitiful, final — like a broken dog in a ditch, breathing its last.
Ashley Judd has always sought truth, from her auspicious beginnings in Ruby in Paradise , to being the best thing in expensive trash with the likes of Matthew McConaughey, to her lovely updating of Ruby called Come Early Morning . Judd is the most talented actress of her generation; but she still seems to need to prove something to us, or to herself. She has offered director Friedkin every cell in her body, and he has found truth with Bug; just not enough to earn what Judd has given.
Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.