How appropriate that William Friedkin’s Bug hit theaters on the very weekend I not only returned from a visit to Dealey Plaza and the site of President Kennedy’s assassination, but also started curling up with Vincent Bugliosi’s mammoth Reclaiming History, the author’s definitive account of that day in Dallas. With conspiracies and plots on the brain, and having now firmed up my own belief that Lee Harvey Oswald did in fact act alone, I was in the right frame of mind for this paranoid little thriller. I had seen the play performed a few years ago, and though I was riveted from start to finish, it didn’t reach me much beyond its cutting and effective portrayal of madness. Only now could I see its breadth of vision; it’s utter savagery regarding the American character. On its face, it is the story of soldier Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), a strange, quiet man who clearly has a past, but is unwilling to reveal too much to the new friend in his life, one Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a lonely gal inhabiting the sort of motel room you half expect to crumble under the weight of its own insignificance. Peter is introduced to Agnes by her quasi-girlfriend R.C. (Lynn Collins), though she too knows little about him other than the fact that he hangs around the bar where they both work. Peter, having nowhere to go, is allowed to stay the night, largely because Agnes is so desperate for company that even the possibility of being raped or murdered is not enough to allow her sense of self-preservation to kick in. He’s a little nutty, she thinks, but how bad can he be? She’s already survived an abusive husband and the loss of her son, so what else could life throw her way?
We learn precious little about these lives prior to their involvement with each other, but given the setting — the dusty, ugly, near-empty roads of Oklahoma; the very middle America glossed over in our national myth — it is enough that, yes, Agnes lives here and, yes, a man like Peter is bound to cross her path at one time or another. She survives — she must, as she still draws breath — but there’s nothing about her existence that constitutes an actual life. She smokes, drinks, snorts, sleeps, and eats, and when not working, doubles up the usual doses of each. This is a pathologically unreflective woman; the very sort who dots our landscape not as caricature, but the hard-bitten reality few seem eager to acknowledge. She’s had her share of pain and blots it out however she can, but she’s not going anywhere; she couldn’t if she tried. Amazingly, she’s just the sort who could manage to eke out several decades doing exactly the same thing year after year. As such, days of the week don’t really matter much, as no context is required when progress itself long ago lost its applicability. Even Peter, who eventually reveals a bit of biography, has exactly as much depth as a man of his station requires. It surprises no one, for example, that this virtual cipher is able to win Agnes’ heart in so short a time, for he has no purpose beyond the solidity of flesh. He’s a man, in possession of a beating heart, and seems willing to stick around for a bit. And hell, don’t he speak real nice? A woman like Agnes might not understand his decidedly elevated vocabulary, but he is willing to speak, after all. He’s talking above her, but he’s still in service, like the white noise of companionship. Sure beats the eerie silence of solitude.
There are other players afoot: Agnes’ ex, played with a menacing muscularity by crooner Harry Connick Jr., is pivotal in understanding Agnes’ vanishing sense of possibility, as well as Dr. Sweet (Brian O’Byrne), an understanding sort who just wants to get Peter back for the care he so desperately needs, but may in fact harbor secrets of his own, that is if we are to believe Peter’s increasingly hysterical notions. And yet, this story belongs to Agnes and Peter. They gradually, and with creepy determination, transform their sanctuary from mildly dilapidated to a menagerie of isolation and death. It all starts mildly, as Peter claims to have found a small aphid in the sheets after a session of lovemaking; a “discovery” that sends the pair — especially Peter — spiraling down into a hell of theories, plots, and counterplots, all of which are obviously demented, but not so bizarre when stripped of their source and examined dispassionately. I say this not as support for Peter’s claims, but rather to state that what he believes is strikingly mainstream, almost expected in our own time. The notion of a “they” — in this case the military brass who have experimented on Peter for the usual reasons — is seemingly assigned at birth to the human animal, and while few may openly declare their adherence to UFO fables, assassination dramas, and terrorist coups, few of us have avoided the allure of feeling, at the very least, “watched.” Peter’s extreme case is atypical, of course, but paranoia need not be crippling to have its effect. Peter has merely taken an acceptable obsession to regions few dare reach, at least openly and in the light of day.
Agnes can’t see the bugs at first, of course, but that only intensifies Peter’s mania, and he soon pushes full fumigation. The sprays and fly strips don’t seem to do the trick, so the entire room is eventually encased in foil (to block out the “signals”) and peppered with buzzing lamps. It’s full-tilt insanity, but the world toward which Peter has been tending his whole life. He merely needed an enabler to push it over the edge. While Peter is ranting, raving, making connections (Tim McVeigh and the Unabomber all figure into this grand tale), and mutilating his body (not only a gruesome tooth-pulling, but carving his skin to extract the bugs), Agnes appears incredulous, but even she gets carried along, eventually implicating herself in Peter’s tale. Now, at last, her child’s mysterious abduction has a root cause, and what’s more, an almost Shakespearean level of importance. Instead of being an irresponsible, sloppy parent who failed in the one role assigned to her, she’s now a key player in a global power struggle. Hence the allure of conspiracy. In the time it takes a person to construct an elaborate, mind-bending puzzle, anonymity and irrelevance have disappeared altogether. Destiny awaits, and the outside world so readily dismissed before, now hinges on the very actions one takes. All this time, while it was thought that you were slaving away for a cheap high, you were actually being groomed for greatness. Far from powerless, you’re dangerous. Some future day, in fact, your name will speak to millions as a symbol of defiance; a brave, rebellious strike — the sacrifice of a child, no less — so that others might live.
Were Bug nothing more than a portrait of schizophrenia, or even a genuine government experiment gone wrong, it still would have worked as an intoxicating diversion, as Friedkin’s directorial skill deepened the ordinary at every turn. The actors, especially Judd, worked at peak strength, and the seedy atmosphere dripped with the musty flavor so often felt at life’s end of the line. These weren’t glamorous stars playing dumb; a genuinely pathetic, slovenly quality could be felt with every pained expression. Judd, for example, is an attractive woman — still is, even as trailer trash — but she’s willing to eschew vanity for the very role that should make her more of a player. It won’t, of course, as there’s nothing star-making about flopping around a motel room amid dirt, blood, and gasoline, but her range is apparent here, even if some might mistake her delivery for going over the top and staying there. She has to be hysterical; it’s the only way a woman of her station would react to a man who was at first a friend, then a lover, and at last a perverse salvation, all in the span of a few twisted days. At last, though, Judd’s efforts aren’t being wasted in yet another time killer; the sort of by-the-numbers escapism where last-minute reversals substitute for actual storytelling. She puts herself through the mill for feeling, yes, but also a suitably cynical, downbeat parable for an American spirit stripped bare. Here and now, history itself is seen as baldly deterministic; pre-ordained events without origin save the smoke-filled room of legend.
The climax of the film is wickedly callous, ending with both hellfire and meaningless death. Our two heroes, lost in an inescapable labyrinth of their own construction, commit grand suicide by self-immolation, as their room and bodies are swiftly consumed by heat and flame. In the next breath, Fin. No tears, no examination, just sudden finality. Martyrdom sought, yet lost the very instant their voices went silent. For without their own self-perpetuating legend, who would speak to their lives, except with pity and derision? Even the audience isn’t asked to care for them, as their train goes off the rails well before any empathy could set in. It takes great courage for a filmmaker to present unlikable characters who shout, cry, and commit suicide, but the extreme circumstances should not distract from their familiar plight. Few dig away at their skin and examine blood under microscopes, but even a cursory examination of internet life or water cooler conversation opens a treasure chest of suspicion. Things have swung so far in the other direction, in fact, that mental instability is now attributed to the denial of high-level machinations. Even a lack of evidence — like the absence of bugs to anyone other then Peter — is seen as the very proof of wrongdoing, putting the coldly rational in the unfair position of having to prove a negative. And so back to Dealey Plaza. A good three-quarters of the American people believe in some kind of conspiracy to kill JFK, despite a 44-year time frame having passed without a single shred of evidence in support if such a claim. There’s a very small leap from such a mind-set to the gullibility of senator and civilian alike in the months before the invasion of Iraq. That long line also runs through Oklahoma City, Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, and just about every suspicious death since Dallas. As such, Peter is a product of his environment, not some random madman in the dark. If he’s crazy, we’re all crazy, and those final flames are licking more than some motel door on the lonely plains.