As we honor the legacy of the legendary William Friedkin, we reflect on one of his greatest but least heralded horror masterpieces, “Bug”.
The Exorcist occupies a strange place in my heart. Like many horror fans, the sound of “Tubular Bells” playing fills me with a unique, chilly delight. But. The making of The Exorcist gives me agita. If the movie thrills me, the making-of makes me queasy.
The root of that unease? Well, put simply, the tactics of one Mr. William Friedkin.
Most cinephiles are aware of the ethically dubious techniques Friedkin used to draw impactful performances from his actors, including Linda Blair, a stone-cold child at the time. I still watch The Exorcist from time to time; it doesn’t inspire the bone-deep feelings of guilt and horror The Twilight Zone Movie creates (I bet it’s great, but I’ve never seen it, and I never will).
So here’s the thing.
When I learned of Friedkin’s passing, I wanted to watch something from his filmography to honor the passing of a brilliant director, whether or not he was kind of a bastard (I’m not prepared to make that blanket assessment, just that some of his methods were certainly bastardy). But my complicated relationship with The Exorcist ruled it out. The French Connection is probably amazing, but it doesn’t interest me.
The 2006 film is certainly not the director’s most well-known feature, but it piqued my interest when it was first released. Somehow, someway, I never got around to watching it, and this odd little psychological curio seemed like the perfect flick for my memorial viewing.
And goddamn, it’s incredible.
Bug is deceptively simple on the surface. Agnes White (Ashley Judd, in what is possibly her best role) passes her days avoiding her ex, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr., absolutely convincing as a real piece of shit), drinking cheap wine, and generally finding ways to avoid her grief over a lost child. Her life has reached a stagnation point, saturated with loneliness and isolation.
Enter Michael Shannon.
One of our finest character actors enters the scene as Peter, a soft-spoken, polite, and non-threatening drifter. It is immediately apparent that Peter has secrets and a haunted past. He is also the absolute polar antithesis of the cocky and abusive Jerry.
Agnes and Peter form a quick and intense bond fueled by shared loneliness that eventually turns into shared psychosis.
Peter is fixated on bugs. He reveals the depths of his obsession gradually, presenting it with both stony-eyed logic and a well-articulated intelligence that quickly indoctrinates Agnes, who is desperate for a meaningful connection, even if it hinges on a mutual, intense paranoia.
To say much more about Bug would be to rob it of its well-earned ability to shock.
The movie is carefully constructed; every end feels inevitable, and still, when they come, they hit with the force of a steamroller.
The movie is adapted from a play by Tracy Letts, who also wrote the screenplay, and you can feel its theater roots throughout.
The vast majority of the action occurs in Agnes’ hotel room; there are (expertly delivered) monologues. This is a feature, not a — if you’ll forgive the pun, and even if you won’t — bug. The single location helps to demonstrate Agnes and Peter’s shared isolation, the perfect Petrie dish for a folie a deux.
Friedkin directs the movie with claustrophobic precision; he keeps the world small, drawing the viewer into Peter and Agnes’ increasingly terrifying reality.
Bug has a number of heady themes on its mind.
The movie cleverly has Peter site true instances of the American government being awful for nefarious purposes, like the abuses suffered by the Tuskegee Airmen. It grounds his paranoia in just enough reality that Agnes’s willingness to accept his mania makes some degree of sense.
But more than anything else, Bug is a story about the pursuit of meaning.
Agnes has given up by the time Peter enters her life. She has no motivation or purpose in her life. Peter brings a narrative to her formless existence. He gives her reason and motivation.
Especially in art, we tend to focus heavily on noble pursuits, and we forget that horror can give a kind of meaning and significance as well. The reality Peter brings into Agnes’s life is terrifying. It’s also a story, something with more plot and purpose than lines of cocaine in a dirty, dilapidated hotel room.
BUG shows the lengths we will go to become the main characters in our own lives and worlds. It’s better to be the stars of a horror story than simply languish in the corners of a mediocre reality that’s lost all of its meaning.
I do not know what alchemy Friedkin performed to draw such intense and alarming performances from his actors. Given what I know about The Exorcist, I may not want to find out.
But Shannon and Judd are so fucking good; I worried a little about their well-being. Shannon is always amazing, but Judd is truly a revelation. She gives an intense, egoless performance, full of profound sadness and desperation, grounded by a physicality that could easily have felt overcast in less skilled hands.
Friedkin may not be remembered for Bug — not while the ponderous shadows of The Exorcist and The French Connection loom enormously over this small, intense movie of two broken people digging not for hope but for personal darkness. But Bug is absolutely unforgettable for anyone who witnesses the hideous little gem it is.
The work of an absolute master, even without pea-soup vomit or Gene Hackman.