Like any good distributor of an eclectic library, the Criterion Collection has a little bit of a genre bias. Their proclivity towards avoiding genre fare is only excepted by such releases as Island of Lost Souls or Armageddon or even Chasing Amy. Nonetheless, it still feels as if the company has certain blind spots. Horror is certainly one of them, but perhaps better observed than other genres with films like Rosemary’s Baby and Eraserhead — both well-known enough to represent the pack. And let’s not forget that Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs was also once part of the Criterion Collection. They have delved a little into body horror with the works of Cronenberg, but the more recent entries into the horror canon (the art-house Antichrist aside) have been, to my eyes, neglected.
Thus, William Friedkin’s Bug should perhaps be considered. Based on the play by Tracey Letts, Friedkin’s film is a puzzling, discomforting sight. It’s highlighted both by its premier sense of claustrophobia along with two powerhouse performances from Ashley Judd as white hotel trash and Michael Shannon as the mysterious man with a secret.
Still recovering from the emotional and psychological (and probably physical) scars left by her abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.), Agnes (Judd) tries to make ends meet while working at a lesbian bar in the middle of nowhere. Her friend/sort-of lover R.C. (Lynn Collins) introduces a drifter by the name of Peter Evans (Shannon), who appears in her life at the same time as her ex-husband’s return from jail.
One might be disinclined to call Bug a “good” film, but using such black and white terms would be rather meaningless in this case. Instead, “effective” would be a more appropriate description. Despite being holed up in a dank hotel room for the entirety of the film, the dynamicism of Friedkin’s camera and Letts’s dramaturgy is as affecting as it is effective. As one finds themselves trapped deeper and deeper into the lives of these poor, unfortunate souls, Bug closes in on you in a curiously suffocating way. It’s disorienting in the best way possible.
Peter, it should be noted, is a conspiracy theorist who believes the government experimented on him and is using little bugs as their minions. It’s a moronic concept; the ramblings of a lunatic. Yet, Shannon sells it with aplomb, dragging Agnes and the audience down into an abyss of dangerous lunacy. It certainly helps that Shannon has decidedly buggy eyes and a strange, chiseled face. He’s like a charming serial killer, each crevice and crag in his face acting as something to trust, which is almost antithetical to what one might assume.
And Agnes, poor Agnes. Battered, broken and vulnerable, Peter is just what she needs (sort of). There are two ways one can interpret their relationship: the first as two lonely and desperate people finding each other. Peter is a drifter who roams from place to place with no family. He has a certain kind of meekness that matches Agnes’s naiveté. She is sensitive and could use someone to protect her yet still allow an autonomous relationship. The fact that they end up falling in love — slowly, surely and intimately — makes sense.
However, one can also read their relationship as just another case of physical abuse; a trend in Agnes’ life. Psychologically and sociologically speaking, this is not atypical. Despite his meekness and unusual sensitivity, Peter is manipulative and unhealthy. His apparent knowledge of these various conspiracies makes him look like the archetypal controller. In this dynamic, it’s still Peter that has the power, even if he seems pleasant.
Regardless of how one chooses to interpret the relationship, Bug gets weirder and weirder as it goes on, and — as any good horror film should be able to do — it really gets under your skin.
Kyle Turner (@tylekurner) is a freelance film critic and writer. He’s also the assistant editor of Movie Mezzanine and began writing on the Internet in 2007 with his blog The Movie Scene. Since then, Kyle has contributed to TheBlackMaria.org, Film School Rejects, Under the Radar and IndieWire’s /Bent. He is studying cinema at the University of Hartford in Connecticut and relieved to know that he’s not a golem.