With Bug, William Friedkin uses light, color, and sound to evoke subjective experience. In a crucial scene, the ominous buzz of a shoddy smoke alarm is confused for a cricket’s chirp. His craft gives the film an impressionistic quality that complicates the allusive dimensions of Tracy Letts’s screenplay, adapted from his own award-winning play. This horror story is largely metaphoric, a weirdo reflection on post-traumatic stress that invites comparison to our nation’s current state of affairs—namely the way crisis is sold to an unsuspecting, gullible public (WMD might have been a more pointed title for the film). Call it reaching, but it’s not like Friedkin (or his characters) don’t ask us to.
Ashley Judd, in the performance of her career, stars as Agnes, a waitress rooming in a run-down motel who intuits from a series of strange phone calls that her ex-husband (a ridiculously buff Harry Connick Jr.) has been paroled from prison, at which point her lesbian gal-pal (Lynn Collins) brings the mysterious Peter (Michael Shannon) to look after her. What follows is a study of metamorphosis through gross empathy. Agnes lost her son in a supermarket years ago and Peter fought in an unspecified war. She’s accepted her loss, looking for her son only in her sleep, but he claims to have been the subject of scientific experiments that left him with sacks of aphid eggs in his body. Is she nuts to believe him? More importantly, are we?
Like Peter, who has an ostensible gift for picking up on things that are “not apparent” (he is ostensibly incapable of rhetorical thought), Friedkin lucidly plays up the subject matter’s fixation with inner and outer states of experience raging against each other, intriguingly suggesting a behavioral association test with a series of shots presented in quick, seemingly meaningless succession—images of a stock of onions, an empty shopping cart, and girls smooching at a lesbian bar—that later reveals its meaning. Like Agnes, the audience is forced into a position of trying to make sense of Peter’s obsession with the insects supposedly crawling in and out of his body, which lead him to transform Anges’s room into a massive, tinfoiled bug trap.
Agnes and Peter’s first and only act of sexual intimacy is a product of pity and is staged as a hornied infestation. Fittingly, Friedkin’s camera repeatedly travels over and arrives at this place as if it were bacteria about to launch an attack on a lonely cell in a vast capillary system. This is not Friedkin’s best or most consistent vision, but it’s certainly his freakiest—manically attuned both to the corporeal and the psychological. What is what and who is who here? More importantly, are the film’s crazies actually crazy at all? Just as Peter gets under the skin, pulling out his teeth in a particularly gruesome stretch of celluloid, so does Friedkin, stressing split selves through nervy delineations of space. Whatever has gotten into Friedkin, let’s hope it stays in there.