In the blocky world of film genres, Bug is being billed a horror-thriller, and it’s hard to argue with the label. The film is both thrilling and horrific—an immolating slide into destruction stretched taut across 102 minutes. And yet it defies either of the genres of which is supposed to be a hybrid, surpassing them both.
Screenwriter Tracy Letts, who originally penned Bug for the theater, deserves much of the credit. His adaptation sticks closely to the stage version (which was adeptly produced by Montana Rep Missoula last year), pulling in the crisp dialogue and nuanced plot that the play had going for it, defying conventional horror tropes continually. What characters say to each other matters more than where they’re standing when they walk into the room where some creature is lurking. What comes next has as much to do with mental states visible in the faces of the characters as anything that might be visited on them by a malevolent force bent on devastation.
Ashley Judd plays Agnes, a honky-tonk cocktail waitress with the grimy vulnerability of someone who asks for a vodka and coke at 10 in the morning like it’s a cup of tea. Having lived to a hard 35, Agnes splits her time between work and a motel room that could pass for an apartment. She dreads the return of her abusive ex-husband Jerry—a hillbilly ex-con just out of prison played by Harry Connick Jr.—and is haunted by the disappearance of their son almost a decade earlier.
One night after work, Agnes’ only friend, a fellow waitress named R.C. (Lynn Collins), brings over a polite but strange man named Peter, played by Michael Shannon, the same actor as in the off-Broadway production of Bug. Agnes initially ignores the peculiar visitor, but later offers him the couch after a conversation in which Peter mentions, “I notice things other people don’t.” Asked for an example, he cites Agnes’ loneliness. It’s obvious and unthreatening but certainly not all he’s seen that she hasn’t.
Driven toward Peter the following morning by a threatening visit from Jerry, she takes the stranger to bed with her—sex shot with an obsession on the exchange of bodily fluids and made to sound like an anthill having an orgasm. In addition to beginning an elaborate conspiracy about surveillance and contagion, it’s an effective departure from the stage version, one of many skillful moves by director William Friedkin to foster an intimate experience of the story despite the considerably greater remove at which moviegoers experience a production compared with theatergoers.
Theater has presence; it’s immediate in a way film cannot be because there are actual stinking, sweating human bodies in the same room as the audience. It’s chancier too. If the audience laughs at serious dialogue or yawns with boredom, their displeasure is obvious. To imagine staging most movies in front of a live audience is to imagine their stillbirths.
Film can be enveloping, however, because the camera can move a viewer’s perspective into places off-limits to the audience of a staged production. Friedkin—whose early work includes The French Connection and The Exorcist but whose career has seen some long stretches of mediocrity—seizes on this, shooting tightly so the range of emotions on the actors’ faces are accessible. His use of color also exploits the medium of film effectively, tracking the evolving plot with a creepy conversion of the set from the brown, orange and yellow hues of cheap, ordinary life into a silver-blue fantasia.
While the set design is great, it’s the human element that distinguishes the movie. Whatever afflicts Peter and Agnes comes from within, and the dubiousness of the threat they perceive alters the typical distance between audience and victim. Instead of being terrified along with the protagonists, the audience is terrified of them, at least when not sympathizing with their plight.
Shannon plays Peter with the skill of someone who learned his role for the without-a-net environment of the theater. He pushes against his character’s boundaries with every line, inhabiting whatever space is allotted to him as his delusion, or maybe comprehension, develops. Judd weaves her way through an emotional juggernaut that believably transforms her from a cynical and scared motel-dwelling waitress into the terrifyingly self-sure queen mother of bugs.
Involving, well-acted and heavy with tension that’s resolved in the flash of a climax few so-called summer thrillers are likely to match, Bug is satisfying entertainment. And meatier than some slasher flick, it offers multidimensional characters and a plot suffused with ambiguity uncharacteristic of comparable fare. (Stick around through the credits for Friedkin’s final mindfuck.)
As a horror film, Bug will be unrecognizable to many fans of the genre. But, certainly, it is horrific; people are consumed by demons and blood is spilt—at least a bucket’s worth—before the end of the film.
My experience of Bug when MRM staged the play changed my attitude toward theater. Edgy and involving, the tension was palpable throughout. And when the end came, it sucked all the air out of the room. The film adaptation, for once, didn’t disappoint.