"I make people nervous," says Peter Evans.
"Why's that?" Aggie White asks.
"'Cause I pick up on things, I think. It makes people uncomfortable."
"Pick up on things?"
"Things not apparent," Peter says.
With that, William Friedkin and screenwriter Tracy Letts, working from Letts' play, put us in the middle of an intense and controlled descent into madness. Bug may be a one-theme movie placed almost exclusively in a small, two room set, but thanks to Friedkin, Michael Shannon as Peter Evans and Ashley Judd as Agnes White, it will not only give you the creeps, it'll make you appreciate some fine movie making.
Aggie is one of life's losers, worn, dumb, lonely and passive, with a smoker's voice, a four-letter vocabulary and an abusive ex-husband who is just out of the slammer. She has a loss-leader job as a waitress in a honky tonk lesbian bar. Aggie is attractive in a white trash way, and she looks every one of Ashley Judd's 38 years. She lives in a crappy motel in some desolate part of Oklahoma just off the highway. Peter Evans is a quiet loner who was picked up by Aggie's lesbian best friend on the way to a party. He is polite and has no place to stay. Aggie is lonely and offers her couch for him to sleep on. He doesn't want sex. There is a need in both of them that makes a terrible connection.
Peter believes in things he knows are true...the machines...the people watching...that nothing will ever be the same. And then there are the insects he finds in the bed sheets, little ones, perhaps a bedbug, or a spider. "If there's one, do you have any reason to suspect there's more of him?" Aggie asks. "Makes sense," Peter says with complete seriousness. "You're assuming it's a him, some rogue aphid on his travels instead of some matriarchal type with a big brood somewhere...Ever watch `Big Valley'? Barbara Stanwyck? Like her." The way Michael Shannon delivers the line, it's not funny.
Aggie is needy and lonely enough to believe. Separately, she probably would have become an over-weight, sloppy alcoholic, waiting on tables in crummy diners. Peter is a schizophrenic paranoid. Separately, he would have wound up drugged to his eyeballs in a public health facility for a week or two, then sent back out to the streets. Together, they feed on each other. Peter knows the federal government has used genetically engineered coke bugs as a component in the poison sprays used to destroy South American cocaine fields. The bugs will survive the drug processing and then attack and kill American coke uses. He can see the bugs infesting the motel room. They're microscopic and have entered his blood stream. Aggie now can see them, too. Reality and delusion have joined. The last half hour is grotesque and violent, with their two rooms sheathed in aluminum foil, scrunched and squeezed to cover every window frame, ceiling, floor and wall. The paranoia is in full, deadly blossom. The conclusion is what we've been led up to.
All this could be ludicrous, even with Tracy Letts' fine screenplay. That it isn't is due to Friedkin, Shannon and Judd. Friedkin, within a confined space, manages to keep a sense movement going, with madness, claustrophobia and tension moving right up the scale. More than anything else, however, the movie works because of the two actors. There are only three other significant roles in the movie and they are well handled, especially by Harry Connick, Jr. as the abusive sleaze of an ex-husband. But it is Shannon and Judd who make this movie work. They each start off in a low-key, gradually letting us get to know their characters and building sympathy for them. His madness and her desire to have someone to believe in are delivered with increasing intensity that never, in my opinion, lurches into indulgent over-acting. That's a rare thing in American movies nowadays. It was particularly fine to see this in Ashley Judd. She started out so well in Ruby in Paradise, then seemed to lose her way in a number of big budget Hollywood hokums. Now 40, she's reached a time when there are a lot of younger, nubile actresses just aching to play stylish vampire hunters or glamorous government agents. I hope that she finally has decided to be an actress, not just another Hollywood star flavor of the year.