Director: William Friedkin
By Marilyn Ferdinand
When I was going through the comments on IMDb about Bug, I was amused to read that one “reviewer” considers director Bill Friedkin a one-hit wonder. That hit, of course, would be The Exorcist (1973). Ah, how quickly they forget. Friedkin’s early career contained his biggest bangs (The Thin Blue Line , The Night They Raided Minsky’s , The Boys in the Band , The French Connection ). He uncorked another great one, To Live and Die in L.A., in 1983, and recently directed the respectable Rules of Engagement (2000) and The Hunted (2003). I remember reading someone ask when Chicago was going to build a monument to this talented and active native son. (Perhaps when it decides it doesn’t need someone named Daley in the mayor’s office—in other words, not soon.)
Then I started to ponder Chicago’s contributions to world art and entertainment. The city has sent hundreds of influential comedians into the world via The Second City, the city’s famous improv troupe and its offshoots. I’ve found fans of the Blues Brothers (Second City alum John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd) all over the world.
And then there’s the theatre company that made the term “Chicago actor” instantly and enduringly hot—Steppenwolf Theatre. John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Joan Allen, Tom Irwin, Laurie Metcalf, and many other Steppenwolf ensemble members have gone on to great success in the movies, on television, and in the theatre. Their physical, in-your-face theatrical style went with them, in the process, helping to popularize their favorite playwright, Sam Shepard.
The original ensemble members rarely show up in Chicago anymore to shine their light on early fans such as myself. That’s all right. Steppenwolf keeps the flame alive by nurturing new generations of actors, directors, and playwrights and sending them out into the world. One of them, an Oklahoman who has made the Steppenwolf Theatre an exciting place today, is playwright/actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts has written one hit play after another for Steppenwolf, including August: Osage Country and Killer Joe, the latter of which transferred to New York and wild success. After I saw a knockout performance of Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser at Steppenwolf in which Letts had the title role, I was more excited to approach Letts on the street to thank him for a riveting performance than I was to greet the man he was talking to—Oscar winner Adrien Brody. As you can imagine, when I learned that Bug was adapted from a play by Letts, I was more than eager to see it.
Bug was marketed as a horror movie, but its audiences got something both more complex and more basic than today’s horror movies deliver. Letts understands that psychological terror is the worst kind, and that it’s better not to show the monster if you really want your audience to scare itself to pieces. He uses this trick of the unseen threat to terrorize his female protagonist, Agnes White (Ashley Judd), and furiously spin this story of insanity and obsession.
Agnes lives in a seedy motel room with kitchenette in Oklahoma. She smokes, drinks too much, snorts cocaine, and works a deadly dull job at a lesbian tavern. Her days are spent sleeping off the night before, which generally involves partying with her friend R.C. (Lynn Collins). One night, R.C., trying to convince Agnes to come to a party after work, says she has a man for Agnes to meet. The episodic film skips the introductions. We next see Agnes in her room, getting drunk and high with R.C., while the man spends an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom. R.C. leaves. When Agnes learns that the man has no place to go, she invites him to sleep on the couch. He promises not to get funny with her, saying he has sworn off sex.
In the morning, Agnes wakes to the smell of coffee and an empty room. The shower is going. She thinks this is rather strange, but gets up to pour herself a cup from the coffee pot. When she goes to the bathroom to thank her guest, she is greeted by the tattooed, threatening figure of her ex-husband Jerry Goss (Harry Connick, Jr.), only weeks out of prison. He has been calling her—we witnessed her answer the phone, hearing nothing, over and over to an unnerving degree at the start of the film. Without explicitly learning why he was in prison, we already guess that Jerry was incarcerated for spousal abuse.
Just then, Agnes’ guest returns with breakfast in hand. Jerry confronts him, slaps Agnes, and leaves. Before doing so, he learns that the man’s name is Peter Evans (Michael Shannon). This is the first time we’ve heard it, too. Agnes sits down to a bran muffin and vodka and coke with Peter, feeling protected and cared for.
Her contentment is shattered when Peter announces that people are after him and that he has to leave to protect her. She smashes her drink against the wall, slams into the bathroom, and weeps uncontrollably. Peter returns to the room and speaking through the door, tells her that he was a guinea pig for the military in its biological experiments. He ran away, but is still being hunted. Agnes, moved by his desperate story, opens the door and runs into his arms. They make love in a psychedelic scene, interspersing naked bodies with microscopic views of blood flowing through veins and arteries. When Agnes gets up to use the bathroom, Peter says he has been bitten by an insect. He shows her red marks on his arm. She thinks it might be a spider bite. He examines her sheets with a table lamp and finds a tiny bug, an aphid. He instructs her about the power of this tiny bug. We will see exactly how powerful as the film moves through Peter’s paranoia and Agnes’ dependency to a chilling, almost apocalyptic end.
Agnes is a borderline personality dealing with a tragedy and hopelessly lonely, perfect prey for a parasite like Peter. Because of the episodic nature of the film, we don’t watch Agnes move slowly into Peter’s delusions, and this creates the shock Friedkin mined so effectively in The Exorcist. But the shock is more like meeting someone you haven’t seen for a while and finding them skeletally thin or filthy and deranged. Letts is adept in the mania of American conspiracy theories, tapping into some ideas many audience members may wholeheartedly believe or at least find somewhat plausible. Thus, he shines a table light on the sheet of our own gullibility and distrust.
Ashley Judd gives this role her all. She looks extremely unglamorous in the beginning, softening upon meeting up with some kindness from Peter, and descending into self-loathing and delusion by the film’s climax. Having said that, Letts clearly wrote an actors’ showcase piece; at times, I felt lost in the zeal with which she strutted her stuff. Michael Shannon originated the part of Peter when it was workshopped at his home theatre, A Red Orchid, in Chicago, and premiered the play in London. He’s clearly an oddball from the word go, but modulates his descent into madness at an even pace. His focus on Agnes is total and mesmerizing, a Svengali for the self-destructive. Lynn Collins and Harry Connick, Jr. are both wonderful, creating fully fleshed supporting characters who seem more in control than Agnes, but are in way over their heads when dealing with Peter.
And what about us? The ride Bug takes us on is as exhilarating as it is absurd. Watching Peter and Agnes examine their blood for bugs using a toy microscope is ridiculous, but we can’t stop them from seeing what they want to see. Reduced to almost a primitive state at the end, Peter and Agnes horrify us as much as they sadden us. I don’t think there’s a lesson to be learned here. There is a certain cynicism, even fatalism, in every ball of energy Steppenwolf ensemble members toss into the world. That’s Chicago, all right. l