Bug. 2006. Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Tracey Letts; based on his stage play of the same name.
Starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr, Daniel F. O’Byrne, & Lynn Collins.
Lions Gate Films/L.I.F.T. Production/DMK Mediafonds International
Rated R. 102 minutes.
Forever, William Friedkin is in my top five directors. Not like he wouldn’t be in the top picks for many film lovers. He’s fantastic, both a director who can throw down with the best of the best in terms of action sequences, as well as one just as capable of creating an expert atmosphere out of mood and tone. Specifically in regard to that concept of atmosphere, Friedkin takes his film’s subjects seriously, even in a dark, dark comedy like Killer Joe. Likewise, he respects his audience enough not to pander to the lowest common denominator, as evidenced by one of the most powerful horror films ever made, The Exorcist (while many who’ve tread in his footsteps in the past few days try replicating and fall short into that trap).
While every director, no matter how genius, will stumble here or there, Bug doesn’t even come close to a misstep. Although many critics share this sentiment now the film didn’t exactly do anything impressive at the box office. That’s not the end game of art, how much money it makes. However, the artists we love deserve to make money from the things they create that entertain us, that leave us in awe of their abilities.
Bug deserved better; still does. It’s the exploration of the other side of love, the one people don’t necessarily want to talk about. Through the characters of Agnes (Ashley Judd) and Peter (Michael Shannon) in Tracey Letts’ screenplay, Friedkin manufactures a claustrophobic, feverish, disturbingly compelling portrait of l’amour fou, or shared psychosis, or whatever you want to call it. By the end, the message is clear: symbiotic relationships in humans, even if they feel like deep love, are sometimes not even parasitic , but entirely geared towards the annihilation of one singular self rather than the elevation of two whole selves.
The love bug. It bites you, and like an infection the chemical in your brain hooks you in, it hooks the other person, too. Suddenly you’re in over your head. Granted, this can work out. Did for me, does for a lot of people. But then there are the other cases, the ones where the symbiotic relationship of love doesn’t work so well; where it takes over and warps both people within the relationship into unrecognisable creatures.
Part of the film works as tragedy, watching Agnes spiral further into a relationship just as destructive as the one she was in before with the ex-con Jerry (Harry Connick Jr). Doesn’t matter that Peter isn’t physically abusive, neither is he mentally abusive. What makes it all the more tragic is how Agnes’ desperation, to be loved and to love a good man, leads her to begin sharing the psychosis of Peter. This is a living metaphor of how, at times when we’re in love we do things against our better judgement, blinded by emotion.
When you love someone you hope to connect with the same ideas and concepts. So Agnes gradually falls deeper into the madness Peter perpetuates. What starts in a blackly comic mode quickly devolves into pure insanity, with Peter descending to a state of paranoia which wraps Agnes up in a whirlwind, an unstoppable force that, at a certain stage, neither of the two lovers are able to control. Before the audience – or Agnes – knows it, the delusion has encompassed all.
One of the best scenes is right after Peter’s started with the fly paper and all the insect repellent, when Agnes’ friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) shows up. It’s easy to see the scary qualities of the relationship between the lovers with another person in their midst. Their dual insanity shines early through the perspective of another. Part of this speaks to how these toxic, symbiotic relationships can ruin other relationships in the lives of those involved.
A huge piece of what makes Bug so compelling is how Friedkin lets us watch the story. At various points throughout you’ll wonder: is Peter actually crazy? Early on it’s easy to see there’s something not right. At the same time, Friedkin leads us into a headspace where we begin feeling that anything is possible. The visuals are one thing. Sound design is a whole other beast. As the film wears on, not only are the sights questionable, the sounds lead us to believe it’s entirely possible that Peter’s psychosis is in fact reality. Coupled with the screenplay from Letts there are a handful of scenes that question the couple’s madness, while simultaneously questioning the audience’s comprehension of what’s genuinely occurring on screen.
Of course it’s the dual performances of Judd and Shannon which draw us into this world and grip us with white-knuckled fingers until the finale. Shannon is lucky enough to have played this character onstage. Apparently they wanted someone else for the lead, though Friedkin remained set on him. What’s awesome about Shannon is that he’s got this edgy handsomeness fit for a leading man, alongside an unnerving quality coming 100% from that interesting face, so at once he’s both the charming Peter and on the end he drags us into his character’s dangerous mental state of delusion.
Lord have mercy, though. ‘Cause as good as Shannon is, Judd is even better. She makes us feel, hard. The more we come to know Agnes, the worse we feel for her. But Judd cracks the heart in two, never portraying this abused, battered woman as a total victim. She’s never too strong, either. She’s fallible, she’s real and raw. Most of all Judd’s performance highlights the desperation often present in us as humans when we need to be loved, when we have so much love to give.
A phenomenal film, Bug‘s easily a favourite of Father Gore’s post-2000. Hell, it’s up there with the greatest psychological thrillers. Period. Because Friedkin is of a high calibre, his directing and his eye for how to conjure atmosphere are particularly evident due to the claustrophobic setting of the small room Peter and Agnes inhabit for 98% of the film. Like an exercise in the master’s best, most subtle qualities.
There are plenty of films out there about love, from the upbeat to the dark and depressing. Yes, this Friedkin flick is a scary, nerve wracking piece that will fuck you up. By the same token, Bug has a positive element, in that it explores a space in human relationships we’re not always willing to go. And through that, we’re able to safely investigate themes of truth, delusion, love, trust, co-dependency, all through the prism of this one relationship. Judd and Shannon together are frightening, magnetic, powerful. This movie, though steeped in a heady psychological atmosphere, is all too human. For daring to go to these places, Friedkin and Letts both are artists unafraid of confronting the darkness lurking in places where we usually expect beauty.