Based on, and feeling very much like, a play, Bug is a thriller based on delusion and paranoia. It’s not so much a “horror” film, even though that’s precisely what it’s been marketed to be. You, as an audience member, will not be scared, but you might just be so for its characters. It has enough ambiguity to keep it interesting for its entirety, it definitely has some ideas that will keep you entertained, and the central question about whether or not a certain character is crazy will either entice or leave you frustrated.
The film stars Ashley Judd as a lonely waitress named Agnes. Almost a decade earlier, she lost her son while shopping in a supermarket, and she hasn’t been able to move on. Her ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), just out of prison, was abusive and has added to her mental troubles. She lives in a motel, only has one friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins), and gets through the day with cocaine, alcohol and frequent naps. You can understand exactly why she no longer dates, or even attempts to have any semblance of a life.
One night, R.C. brings a man, Peter (Michael Shannon, who also played this role in the play), to her room. He’s a quiet person, and also hasn’t been with anyone in a long time. They connect. They talk for a great while, and soon become companions. But there’s something weird about Peter. He suspects people are listening in on him. He sees bugs that might or might not be there. He “picks up on things” that nobody else notices. Agnes is in love with him, and him with her.
The movie proposes a simple question: Is Peter crazy? You’ll either be pleased or disappointed to know that there isn’t a clear-cut answer. If you’re someone who dislikes ambiguity in your movies, Bug will frustrate you to no end. However, if you’re okay with different possible interpretations, as well as possibly watching it a second time in an attempt to completely figure it out, you’ll quite enjoy Bug. For me, there was only one answer that could be true but I’m sure others would have differing opinions.
A lot of Bug allows for its characters to make speeches about mind control, secret government experiments, and religious allegories that will make a conspiracy theorist’s dream. In context of the movie, these long monologues don’t feel out-of-place. In fact, they fit right in, in large part because of how convincingly “off” Michael Shannon plays his character. Theatrical acting is different from that of film, but Shannon has successfully translated his stage character to the screen.
The film is either about joint delusion — folie à deux, so to speak — or about a man who lost many years due to government experimentation and is now on the run after escaping. Take your pick. As the characters begin to process the situation they’ve gotten themselves into, using “logic,” it could easily unwind. However, in the moment, it all seems to make sense. The rambling of the characters is so sloppy and messy that it seems ad-libbed. This completely works in this movie.
In fact, the performances on the whole are so raw and intense that they would be able to carry this film even if the story wasn’t terribly interesting. Ashley Judd is as emotional as she’s ever been, while Michael Shannon is suitably creepy and also convincing as either a paranoid schizophrenic or someone who truly has had experiments done on him. Shannon is the one that makes the less-plausible story seem more plausible, while Judd slowly beginning to believe him is quite the performance to behold.
This is very minimalistic filmmaking, which is why it feels a lot like a play. The majority of its proceedings take place in one room in a single house, and there are only three actors with prominent screen time. It is often the case that what works on the stage doesn’t work on film, but this is one that worked very well. Perhaps part of the reason for this success is that it was adapted by the play’s writer, Tracy Letts. Or, it might have been because director William Friedkin is such a talent (he of The French Connection and The Exorcist fame).
Bug isn’t a pleasant watch, although there’s only one scene that will make you want to turn away. It’s unsettling and creepy, but not necessarily scary. If you want a horror film to scare yourself and friends, you’ll want to look elsewhere. You fear for the characters, true, but not for yourself like many horror films aim to do. It transforms itself as it plays out, moving from a decent but not necessarily good character drama to an effective and completely weird thriller that is impossible to dismiss.
Bug is either a movie about the infestation of delusion among psychological damaged individuals, or a thriller about a man on the run from the government after being experimented on for a number of years. Regardless of the way you interpret it, this is one heck of an experience, and is something you should absolutely give an opportunity, unless you’re someone who hates ambiguity. It’s not a true horror film, but despite not being true to its marketing, it’s definitely worth watching for both its story and characters.