William Friedkin ratchets up suspense and terror to an almost unbearable level with his adaptation of Tracy Letts’ award-winning 2004 Off-Broadway play Bug, about a couple of outsiders consumed by paranoia. The psycho-satiric dramatic material is like a Sam Shepherd play amped up on a steroid and amphetamine cocktail.
Without the benefit of make-up, Ashley Judd chews scenery and spits it out as Agnes, an ordinary lower class loser holed up in a desert motel room where she’s a sitting duck for her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), recently released after two years in prison. Emotionally damaged by the disappearance of her young son some years ago, lonely Agnes welcomes the live-in romantic attention of Peter, a self-professed Gulf War veteran (magnificently played by Michael Shannon in the role he created onstage in London and New York).
Between earsplitting hovering helicopters and threatening visits from Jerry, Peter discovers “bugs” he calls aphids that he believes were planted under his skin as part of a military medical experiment. It isn’t long before the tiny mechanized insects also invade Agnes’ physiology, and the couple descends into a bizarre reality consumed with a panic-stricken fear scratching at them from their insides out.
Bug is a disorienting story because of its rudderless characters, whose suggestibility to conspiracy theories pull them down a path of excruciating suspicion of a government-programmed infestation of robot bugs. It’s no accident that the term “bug” is synonymous with surveillance devices, or that similar such aphids are referenced in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly.
Tracy Letts’ play is a micro-microcosm of an American reality that could be played out in any urban living room or suburban kitchen where people turn their paranoid attention inward. Agnes works as a cocktail waitress at a roadhouse bar where her lesbian best friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) also works. R.C. clearly has the hots for Agnes, but knows that Agnes isn’t willing to make such concessions even if she has sworn off men, so R.C. introduces Agnes to Peter, a shy drifter who seems harmless enough for all of his geeky Boy Scout charm.
We know from the way Peter talks that he is a damaged person. He’s dismissive of sex as a compartmentalized act that he’s not interested in, when the subject comes up. Peter’s low self-esteem painfully leaks out when he tells Agnes that he’s “not good for much.”
But after a nasty yet thankfully brief visit from Jerry, Agnes is happy to have Peter’s passive aggressive male presence around. One of the film’s juiciest scenes comes when Jerry tries to use his bulk and macho attitude to intimidate Peter whose slight build and obsessive disposition belie his unnerving ability to put Jerry off balance with an adamant description of the bug infestation that consumes the motel room.
Letts’ script magnifies the ambiguity of a world where suspicion is the only currency. The disappearance of Agnes’ little boy has turned her into a drug addict desperate for an intimacy that will make her whole again. When Dr. Sweet, a man who introduces himself as a military psychiatrist, arrives to examine Peter, it seems that Letts will finally give away a concrete answer about the veracity of the bug infestation that haunts Peter and Agnes.
But Dr. Sweet is also a drug addict, so how could he be who he says he is? There are many more allegations buried within the microscopic narrative egg sacks that Friedkin and his daring cast explore with agonizing curiosity.
Who or what you, do or don’t, believe will probably only be answered by your subconscious mind. That’s not to say that your guts won’t be in on the action. MTW