Off-Season Reviews: Bug (2006)

William Friedkins’s (the Exorcist, the French Connection) Bug has to be one of my favorite contemporary horror films. A.) it’s clearly torture porn, even if this time it’s a bizarre, newly discovered strain of consensual torture porn. B.) it stars Ashley Judd! Ashley Judd; in a horror movie! A torture porn even! C.) much like 2001’s Tape, it is also based off a play and centered around a few characters who are largely confined to one motel room. Luckily, that’s where the comparison ends.

(It’s also interesting to point out that this economy is spread throughout the film, right from the start. After the studio adverts play, the screen displays “BUG” on the bottom, and the camera pans to an overhead shot of the motel. No long cast listings, assistant directors, etc. Just all business.)

Our story tonight centers on two psychos who can’t function in the “real world,” and thus are only comfortable around each other. The problem being that one of them, Peter (Michael Shannon), is bat-shit insane, and Agnes (Ashley Judd) is more than happy to follow him down the rabbit hole.

Ashley Judd is perfect as Agnes, a strung-out, down-on-her-luck, codependent. She’s on the run from Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), her abusive, recently paroled, ex. In the finest example of un-starmaking seen recently, Judd actually looks wasted, trashy, (semi-)vacant, and, in possibly a Hollywood first, middle-aged! In other words, Judd looks like an average woman!

And Michael Shannon is doubly perfect as Peter, a man who’s never run across a conspiracy theory too confounding that it couldn’t be tied into all the other ones he also believes. He sees hidden pictures within the cheap prints hanging on the motel’s walls, hears buzzing noises constantly, and, let’s face it, Shannon looks just like Norm McDonald. Which might not seem like much, until you consider that Norm is (in)famous for (allegedly) bottling his own piss. A rumor that allows this casting choice to bring the whole “life imitates art” idea full circle.

What sells the film is how convincing it is. Even though you always know Peter and Agnes are insane. It’s clear, everyone tells them, and us, so. Both Jerry and Agnes’ best/only friend R.C. recognize that their friend is losing grip with reality. They both look through Peter’s microscope, set up to find the bugs in his blood, and see nothing. Peter and Agnes, however, see millions of bugs. Agnes’ dermatologist notes that her “bug bites” look self-inflicted.

In another brilliant move, we only see the bugs once. Agnes can’t see them because they’re too small, until suddenly she can. No one besides Peter knows they’re there. But, during the final glance into the microscope, the one that tells our poor, manic protagonists that Peter’s fully infected, we see the image through their eyes.

A pivotal, but understated, scene who’s absence would’ve turned the film into a comedy. Without it, we’d almost have an SNL skit, with two characters just play acting. Looking into microscopes and pinching their fingers together; shouting “see it!?!” at each other. But by showing what they’re seeing, we find it isn’t just a figment of their imagination, it’s something they believe in. As real to them as Jesus, Buddha, or the Reptilians are to you.

So we know they’re crazy. But, as a viewer, you still care about the characters. You don’t look down on them as two loons. Instead the film manages to twist your own perception of the normal characters into that of Peter’s.

Jerry, obviously concerned that his ex is living with a borderline psycho, returns with Peter’s doctor/consultant to save her. He might be an abusive asshole, but he’s still sane. Relatable. He, like us, wants Agnes to make it.

Naturally the doctor gets stabbed to death, because he’s “a machine” sent to collect him. But it’s too late. The film’s brilliant (literally! They go up in a blaze of gasoline) finale has Agnes finally upstaging Peter with her own conclusive conspiracy theory.

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