William Friedkin is one of the most talented film directors to ever grace this barren wasteland of a planet. The filmmaker has brought us brilliant films such as The Exorcist (which still haunts me), The French Connection, and the underseen Matthew McConaughey gem, Killer Joe. It’s his 2006 effort, Bug, however, that stands as his underappreciated masterpiece.
Based on the play of the same name, Bug tells the story of Agnes White, a waitress who lives in a sketchy, run-down motel. Agnes abuses drugs and alcohol to cope with the mental turmoil of losing her son, as well as being physically battered by her ex-husband. When Agnes is introduced to Peter Evans, a drifter who claims to be a discharged soldier, the two form a bond around their loneliness and come to rely on each other’s broken spirit in order to feel some sort of comfort.
After engaging physically for the first time, Peter becomes paranoid about a bug infestation in their room, revealing to Agnes that he was the subject of biological testing by the U.S. government while he was in the military, and that he believes the bugs were planted inside of him as part of the experiment. Peter’s behavior becomes erratic as his paranoia leads to insanity, and Agnes, though not certain the bugs actually exist, allows herself to descend into madness alongside him.
Friedkin’s film is a masterclass in wringing suspense out of stellar performances and a focus on the unseen. The viewer is left to determine for themselves if the bugs are real or just the manifestation of a mentally ill man. Both realities, however, prove equally disturbing and effective. Those who believe in the bugs and buy Peter’s government conspiracy theories regarding the infestation, the people searching for him, and the disappearance of Agnes’ young son, are treated to a maddening exercise of tension, a unique mystery, and a fervent sense of paranoia that will make your skin crawl.
Those who don’t believe in that reality, though, are treated to a significantly deeper and heartbreaking tale of two broken people who find each other and refuse to let go. My personal interpretation of Bug is that the arachnids never existed, and Agnes never really believed in them. Agnes, played phenomenally by Ashley Judd, is broken beyond repair by her past. Her loneliness pushes her into the arms of the damaged and equally lonely Peter. As Peter’s psychotic issues begin to dictate his behavior, Agnes disarms her faux strength and finally allows herself to be vulnerable with someone as visibly tormented as she is. There are several moments of disbelief from Agnes in regard to the existence of the bugs, which personally leads me to believe that, in the film’s finale, she caved not because she thinks Peter is right, but because she’d rather die with someone who loves her and gives her life purpose rather than continuing a life of loneliness.
The psychological horror presented in Bug is among the most effective I’ve ever seen, with Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd working as powerhouse vessels for the paranoia, insanity, and brokenness of their characters. Friedkin expertly uses these performances, as well as that of Harry Connick Jr. in a supporting role as Agnes’ abusive ex, to build situational tension, with the different perspectives of story setting the backdrop for what each individual viewer will use to determine their reality. Bug benefits from this ambiguity, and the discussion it evokes is always fascinating.
Bug is Willaim Friedkin’s unsung masterpiece, and I implore you to revisit it and share your interpretation.