This segment, on this day, initially felt like a foregone conclusion. I was all set to write about Total Recall on the eve of the remake's release. But then a film from recent memory caught my eye, and it made even more sense to revisit here, on the eve of director William Friedkin's latest picture Killer Joe. Friedkin, a visceral and often brilliant director, has spanned forty years behind the camera and doesn't seem ready to stop yet. Bug is a claustrophobic, terrifying thriller that I hated at first. I found nothing redeeming or memorable about the film or the performances, and the events came and went from my mind without so much as a second thought. But then I watched it again, having read up on the film and - basically - maturing as a movie watcher in the last five years or so. Bug might be Friedkin's finest work since The Exorcist in 1973.
I don't quite understand my initial reaction to the picture. I have always enjoyed films based on plays (Glengarry Glen Ross) or films taking place in primarily one setting (Tape), so Bug seemed like the perfect blend. I was just not receptive for whatever reason, but I digress. Bug is a film about paranoia and the desire for people to share madness. No matter how unstable a person might be, there is someone somewhere in this world who will stand side by side with them in their decent into madness. Bug stars Ashely Judd as Agnes, a bartender at a small-town lesbian bar. Agnes has an ex-husband, Jerry, an abusive monster fresh out of jail and as threatening as ever. Agnes is lost in the world, aimless, and the sadness permeates her orbit. So it makes sense when Peter Evans appears in her bar and captures her fancy.
Peter is a Gulf War veteran, and played by Michael Shannon you would never mistake him for a stable Vet. Shannon - who played the same role in the stage version of the film - is a powerful, ominous presence in any film. But here, as an unhinged military vet, he excels. Peter is convinced the government has planted bugs beneath our skin for monitoring purposes. It doesn't particularly matter the reasons, the who or the why. It is all about the propaganda of Peter, and the was he captures Agnes in his web. She is pulled in to Peter's insanity and begins slipping herself.
The thing is, Agnes never seems crazy at first. She seems sad and lost and in need of a friend, and this is the key. Sadness can create an avenue for insanity. In a weak moment, Peter crept in to her consciousness, and when the two of them look beneath a microscope at things they think they see, and when the two of them begin picking obsessively at their own skin, you realize the power of Peter's conviction has absorbed the weaker Agnes.
The final twenty minutes of Bug are an intense and freakish decent into pure insanity, with Agnes and Peter creating a womb of aluminum foil and light that is as frightening as anything you would ever see on screen. And as the film spirals downward into despair and certain madness, the performances of Shannon and Judd keep us captivated. They are uninhibited roles pulled off to perfection, under the careful eye of an energetic and willing director.