The other night, I did something I’d been meaning to do for years: watch William Friedkin’s 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts’s 1996 play Bug. That it had taken me so long remains a mystery to me: Friedkin is, after all, the director of The Exorcist. I’d seen Letts’s play August: Osage County on Broadway and loved it. And the film’s two leads were the always reliable Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon. It took me over a decade to watch the film, but in the end it might be that I saw it at exactly the right time.
[Spoilers for Bug follow.]
Judd plays Agnes, a woman living alone in a motel in a stark rural area. She works at a bar with her friend RC (Lynn Collins) and has a fraught relationship with her abusive ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), who’s recently been released from prison. She’s also haunted by a loss in her past and has a tendency to numb that loss with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. Peter (Shannon) enters her life through RC, and at first he seems like a functional, albeit shy, man. As the two gradually come together, he reveals more and more of his wounds, both emotional and physical, to her.
He also believes that the government has infected him with bugs, and soon enough Agnes has gotten swept up in his delusion. In a different context, these two lonely and wounded people might be perfectly matched. In this one, they push each other in increasingly ominous directions. The film is largely confined to Agnes’s apartment, and the way its environment becomes increasingly bizarre reflects the couple’s degenerating mental state. So too does the disorienting way Friedkin shoots the film, which echoes the paranoia felt by both Peter and Agnes, and which drifts between objective reality and something more subjective.
As Peter rails against getting help for his ailments both physical or mental, you might start to feel a sense of deja vu. The same is true in a scene near the end of the film, where the couple comes up as the two of them spin a conspiracy theory involving robotic doubles, sinister government agencies, and a pervasive plot to steal children for nefarious purposes. Had Peter invoked Q or recommended drinking deworming liquid as a cure for his bug infestation, it would have seemed entirely in keeping with the rest of the film thus far — despite Letts’s play debuting 25 years ago.
Alternately, in his review, Roger Ebert termed the couple’s folie à deux “a paranoid fantasy that ties together in one perfect conspiracy all of the suspicions they’ve ever had about anything.” Sound familiar?
There’s been no shortage of essays and think pieces about how easily people have become radicalized by the conspiracy theories of the present moment, and I found myself thinking of that while watching Bug, too. Agnes goes from skeptic to true believer relatively quickly, which initially struck me as unbelievable; even with the assumption of offscreen action rooted in the film’s onstage roots, it initially struck me as a leap.
And then it didn’t. Part of the skill of Letts’s screenplay is the way it balances body-horror thrills with psychological substance, showing the emotional wounds that Agnes carries with her — and, by extension, showing just why she takes to this new worldview so quickly. Given that by the end, she’s finding something empowering in it (while also adopting some decidedly retrograde politics), it’s yet another place where the parallels between then and now come together. Taken on its own, it’s a gripping psychological thriller; taken in the context of today, it plays out like a horrific parable.