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William Friedkin’s Bug: Is Paranoia Contagious?

May 28, 2009
Ever wonder why Jim Jones, Ted Kascinsky, and Tim McVeigh did what they did?  If you have, then William Friedkin’s Bug may just provide you the answer.  Based on a play by screenwriter Tracy Letts, Bug tells the story of Agnes, a down and out drug addict barely existing in a run down, dilapidated motel, her ex husband, Jerry, who has just gotten out of prison, and Peter, a mysterious man who has gone AWOL from a military hospital.
bugs in his teeth

bugs in his teeth

William Friedkin, best known for his directorial efforts on The Exorcist, has a long body of work including such classics as To Live and Die in LA, The French Connection, and Rampage.  I don’t know if Rampage is a classic, but it surely is among horror fanatics who were granted uncensored access inside the head of a vicious serial killer. Released in 1987, Rampage stirred some brief controversy before falling into video store purgatory. 

During a career spanning 47 years, Friedkin has shown propensity for drifting back and forth between horror and action/police thrillers. With Bug, the director successfully blends both horror and action in this taught, claustrophobic little movie.

We open quietly, staring at what looks like a corpse on the floor.  We fly slowly down toward a run down, dirty motel in the middle of nowhere.  The phone rings. “Hello?”  There is no one there.  The phone rings again.  “Hello?” There is no one there.  The room is small, hot, and littered with drug paraphernalia.  The phone rings again? Agnes yells into the phone, informing us that her ex husband, Jerry, has just gotten out of prison.  There is still no one on the other end, though. And she hangs up.  She is scared, angry, and alone.  The phone rings again.  We move in closer with each cut, from the phone to Agnes and back and forth, until we see only Agnes’ eyes.  She resists answering.  She is strong.

Connick Jr. impresses as abusive ex

Connick Jr. impresses as abusive ex

Leaving the motel in the morning, she finds an advertisement on her car; strange, it is not on any of the other cars.  She is also smart.  Cut to the grocery store. She moves quickly through the isles, robotically tossing cans and milk into her cart.  Suddenly, there is a moment’s pause.  The camera moves in to the onions, a small empty cart, a child screaming; Agnes must have had a child. 

And so it goes, within the first 10 minutes of Bug, Friedkin has slowly revealed the roots of this story.  He allows the viewer to piece it together; he respects his audience and understands that the story is more powerful with us as participants in the mystery than as passive viewers.  Ashley Judd as Agnes is stunning.  Looking ragged, dirty, and strung out; she gives an Oscar worthy performance as she spirals toward insanity. Harry Connick Jr. as Jerry, Agnes’ abusive ex boyfriend, is strangely likable even as he forces his way back into Agnes’ life, threatens her repeatedly, violently slaps her across the face, and then says, “I love you.”

But it is Michael Shannon who is the true star of the movie. We meet Shannon’s Peter Evans late one evening as RC, Agnes’ girlfriend/lover-as a bonus, we get to witness a sensuous kiss between these two-brings him over on the way to a late night party.  At first polite, kind, and a little strange, Agnes quickly falls for him.  It seems out of character initially, and my suspension of disbelief was momentarily shattered as I struggled to reconcile her fear, nervousness, and hesitation at meeting strangers. 

After RC is suddenly called away to assist her troubled friend, Peter and Agnes are left alone in the motel.  During a tightly written conversation, we learn that Peter is homeless, that his mother is deceased, and that his father is a preacher with no followers.  Odd.  But in her weak, fearful, depressed state, Agnes understandably sees an opportunity to care for someone again.  I am able to reconcile my doubts about this relationship by understanding the need of a mother, a drug addict, a failure, to grasp an opportunity to repay the debt she feels toward her lost child.  She cares for Peter in like a mother does a son.

But this quickly changes once they sleep together. During a long, sensuous, sticky, sweat filled sex scene, something changes.  Peter is bitten by a bug; Agnes doesn’t see it; Peter finds it and shows it to Agnes.  Does she see it? She says she does.  No, she doesn’t.  Does she?  Peter’s paranoia begins to seep out at first. He is hesitant to share, but then it comes pouring out.  Initially, he talks of man’s need to feel safe in knowing that technology is on.  The hum of the fan, the vibration of the AC, the whir of the helicopter, the annoying beeping of the smoke alarm each remind us that things are not as they appear. 

terrifying reality

terrifying reality

Then he talks of military experiments, government conspiracies, helicopters hovering, and people looking for him.  To the viewer, this all seems plausible at first. Friedkin’s use of sound is powerful.  It is a constant reminder of man’s reliance on machines.

As the film picks up speed, we rumble toward the end.  Agnes grows stronger through her connection with Peter, throws her ex out of the motel, destroys her relationship with RC in a fit of motherly love, and absorbs the fear and paranoia that Peter has “infected” her with.  When Dr. Sweet arrives, signaling the final act, Bug shifts into a high speed, frenetic, paranoid steam engine as it rumbles, shakes, and explodes toward its shocking yet somehow plausible conclusion.  Ahsley Judd spews forth what must be pages of dialogue amidst chaos and confusion.  Covered in blood, cuts, dirt, and muck, we are witnessing the peak of a torrid, tragic love affair. The term baptism by fire never meant as much to me as it did after the shocking conclusion. 

Once the screen went black, my adrenaline spiked.  The movie ends at its climax!  I had been blindsided by Bug, and wondered why I had not heard more of it.  Bug works on various levels. The script is tight and drives the plot, the director respects his audience and allows us to put the pieces of the story together, and the acting is honest and powerful.  Ultimately, though, Bug works because it explores the truth beneath the obsession, the weakness that makes us vulnerable, and the power of loss to destroy our souls.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 30, 2009 2:47 pm

    bug was a GREAT movie. i saw it last year. really, the only reaon i wanted to see it was because Harry Connick, Jr. was in it and i’ve never seen him in a movie. i love his music, so i wanted to check it out. it was an extremely interesting movie. i didn’t like the end at first, but the next day i liked it alot actually.

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