I’ve been known to bemoan my habit of sleeping on classic horror movies, but one movie I’m glad to have only first seen as an adult is William Friedkin’s The Exorcist. I was well into my thirties by the time I watched it, and while I was of course familiar with all of the head-spinning and pea soup vomiting, I was more affected by the less iconic moments. Regan’s harrowing ordeal in the hospital shook me just as much as the spider crawl, but I doubt that kind of moment would have resonated with me when I was younger. I was also very impressed by Friedkin’s ability to portray damaged yet sympathetic characters who anchor the chaos of the movie. Over thirty years later, Friedkin put these skills to good use again in a very different, although no less affecting, movie: the 2006 psychological body horror trip Bug.
Written by Tracy Letts and based on a play he also wrote, Bug centers on Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a woman living alone in a rundown hotel in small-town Oklahoma. When we meet Agnes, she’s working at a local bar and dealing with a series of calls from someone who refuses to speak when she answers, and who may or may not be her recently-released-from-prison ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr). One night, her friend stops by accompanied by a “friend of a friend” named Peter (Michael Shannon), a socially awkward man with whom Agnes begins to form a bond. But as their relationship progresses, Agnes discovers that Peter carries with him a lot of psychological baggage, along with a possible infestation of insects implanted in him by the US army.
A couple of things to note before we move forward: first, much of my discussion of this movie will require heavy spoilers, as the conclusion plays heavily into my interpretation of its themes, so consider this a warning for those who have yet to see it. Second, this is an unrelentingly dark film. It delves into the consequences of loss, abuse, and mental illness in a way that doesn’t offer much relief to the audience, with any hope of a happy ending literally going up in flames during the closing minutes.
On one hand, watching Agnes and Peter’s mental health deteriorate is very sad to watch, and the accompanying deterioration of their bodies as they try to rid themselves of their “infestation” is some of the most cringe-inducing body horror that I’ve seen in recent memory (for those who have an issue watching anything related to teeth, I highly recommend skipping a scene that I won’t go into detail about here, but you will definitely see coming). However, and I really hope I’m not betraying something off in my own mind here, as hard as their situation is to watch, there’s also something bittersweet in it. We learn through the course of the film that Agnes, in addition to dealing with an abusive husband, also suffers from guilt after losing her child. Peter was home-schooled by a self-proclaimed preacher who never had a congregation, hinting at mental illness that clearly also affects Peter.
There’s something comforting about these two lost souls finding each other and giving their lives meaning, even if that meaning is an illusion that ultimately ends in tragedy. And to be clear, my take on this movie is that this whole Army conspiracy is a symptom of Peter’s paranoid schizophrenia. Letts’ script allows for some interpretation here, but for me, the story has more emotional impact if the conflict is internal rather than external. But while watching our protagonists self-immolate themselves for the sake of a delusion is tragic, it seems like less of a tragedy than if Agnes and Peter had never met.
Now, in real life, if one of my friends told me that she met a guy who had convinced her that they were both victims of a government conspiracy to infect people with insects as a method to track and control the population, I’d do everything in my power to convince them to get the help they need. Stories in the horror genre, however, allow audiences to witness darker scenarios play out while still being able to dig into them in order to identify positive themes.
Peter, for example, is destructively sick, but he’s not abusive. He’s genuinely surprised when Agnes’ friend believes he’s holding her against her will, and to do so convincingly speaks to a great performance by Michael Shannon, who plays Peter with such sincerity that you can’t help but feel for the guy.
This is especially the case when you compare Peter to Harry Connick Jr.’s portrayal of Jerry. Connick Jr. seems to be channeling his previous character Daryl Lee Cullum (from Copycat), just without that serial killer charm. Instead, Jerry is the embodiment of an abusive relationship. He steals money from Agnes, he gaslights her into believing their problems are her fault, and when all else fails, of course he falls back on beating her. I realize Agnes should not have had to choose between the serial abuser and the delusional schizophrenic, but if these are the two options presented, at least she ended up with someone who gave her something to believe in, and she went out swinging with someone she cared for, rather than at the hands of a white trash ex-felon.
Typically, Bug is the type of movie that I would never want to see again. Movies that dwell in miserable situations with no relief tend to be too much for me to want to experience more than once (I’m looking at you Goodnight Mommy). But maybe, as with The Exorcist, it’s a good thing that I saw this as I’ve gotten a bit older and my definition of a “happy ending” has evolved to accommodate for the fact that we sometimes need to find small happiness in miserable situations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still all for movies where heroes come out on top. But sometimes, as is the case with Bug, we have to find consolation in the idea that even if we don’t get our happy ending, at least we don’t have to go out alone.