Agnes (Ashley Judd) is a lonely waitress who has hit rock bottom. Living in a decrepit motel room in fear of her abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jnr.), she lives a life of solitude. However, when her good friend R.C. (Lynn Collins) introduces her to the shy, quiet Peter (Michael Shannon), they develop a romantic relationship. Yet one night, when Peter complains of being bitten by an unseen bug, both become convinced the motel is infested. Things then begin to spiral out of control.
Directed by William Friedkin, Bug, adapted from the play by Tracey Letts, is a fairly low key affair, somewhat apt for a director with as limited a recent output as the once director of The Exorcist has. Set almost entirely within the confines of Agnes’s motel room, Bug could be considered a goldmine for actors, where performance is everything. Friedkin, for better or worse, allows his cast an element of freedom with their roles, using a non-flashy directing style (static camera, long takes) which seldom detracts from the performances on show.
For the most part, Bug reminds you of how great a director Friedkin can be. Commencing slowly, the film’s pace is deliberate and terrifically calibrated to wring tension from the everyday. The ever ominous presence of the abusive Jerry, both on screen and off, adds an extra element of tension in a piece that has already demonstrated its insistence on unpredictability. Said unpredictability is executed like a knife being slowly twisted: Jerry, despite being a brute, feels somewhat like a red herring. And why is it that the bugs arrived as soon as Peter came into the fray?
To explain the film’s anomalies would ultimately neuter the experience and, whilst there are moments that cause frustrating impatience (not to be mistaken for boredom as the film is never boring or uninteresting), the audience is rewarded in spades. The intensity of the last half hour is so extreme that you legitimately find yourself feeling deeply uncomfortable. Thanks must be given to both Judd and Shannon, the latter especially, for deftly handling the potentially hokey material with a frightening level of earnestness that causes you to question their sanity as things get progressively worse.
It’s far from perfect. Friedkin can stumble at times with his editorial choices and unless you buy into the unfolding madness much of the latter half will seem laughable (Judd screaming ‘I’m the super mother bug!’ will either distil shivers or giggles) but, as a study of post-traumatic stress, it is both electrifying and disturbing in equal measure.