The bugs are the transmitters!
— Agnes (Ashley Judd)
Agnes (Ashley Judd) can’t catch a break. Stuck away in a motel room in Oklahoma, she works nights at a bar, full of smoke and neon and customers who grab at their waitresses as a matter of course. Her best friend RC (Lynn Collins) looks out for her; they share a sense of being under siege.
Agnes’ days, not exactly by contrast, look to be shapeless and lonely. She’s become used to being afraid, whether lying in bed or hearing the phone ring. Lately she’s been getting calls where no one speaks, but she thinks it’s Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), her ex, just come out of prison, breathing on the other end. To dull the raw edges, she drinks, wine and beer mostly, and when she can get it, she sniffs coke or smokes crack. But even as her party with RC literally dissolves into a series of snickers and half-asked queries while they lay beside one another on her “crappy couch,” Aggie’s head looks to be churning: she can’t stop thinking.
What goes on in Aggie’s head is the point of departure for Bug, which is not, as early trailers suggested, anything like a conventional horror film. No specially-effected crawly things under her skin, no slamming doors or chases down hallways. The horror here is much worse. It has to do with worry and inculcation, fear so close you believe it was always yours, that it marks you innate sensitivity and insight. It has to do with surveillance and weirdness, habits and expectations. Even a trip to the local market turns into an ordeal: Aggie steps out into the sunshine, noticing her car windshield has a Xeroxed flyer on it, for “B&B Body Shop.” The camera follows her gaze as she peeps the other cars parked before the motel, a serial rack focus underscoring that not a one has a flyer on it. Just hers.
The scene at the store offers an exceptionally brief indication of Aggie’s trauma, the possible event that triggered her current state: she spots onions, the camera closes on them then cuts to her and back again, matching zooms that reveal she has a past with onions, and an empty shopping cart. It’s not hard to put this together when it slips later that she had a six-year-old son who “disappeared” in a supermarket some 10 years ago. Still, the movie doesn’t press the point: she’s got guilt and pain, and no way to manage any of it, except by self-medication and Jerry’s abuse (Judd’s performance is phenomenal, evoking the promise and tender detail she offered, so generously and so strikingly, way back in Ruby in Paradise). The specifics of such trauma are, of course, both intolerably intimate and splashed all over cable TV. The movie doesn’t make visible those specifics. It doesn’t need to. Instead, you see aftermath, Aggie’s daily desperation, her grueling sadness.
And then she meets Peter (Michael Shannon). With a jaw set at a perfectly creepy jut, he’s someone RC brings back to Aggie’s room from the bar, a man who doesn’t drink, but spends a strangely long time in the bathroom, flushing and flushing. The girls, meanwhile, wonder about him, giggling over the possibility that he’s an “axe murderer.” When he finally emerges from the bathroom, he’s dead serious: “I’m not an axe murderer,” he says more than once, to make sure Aggie hears him. When she begins to wonder about him, observing him as she sits on a swing outside the motel — a shot that is flawlessly quaint and absurd — he reveals, “I pick up on things.” It “makes people uncomfortable,” he suggests, intriguing Aggie, who jokes, “That’s a talent.” When he observes that she’s lonely, she has to laugh. “That hardly makes you Jeane Dixon.” That she needs to explain “Jeane Dixon” to Peter makes him seem naïve, possibly untainted by the current (or maybe recent) tabloid world, or maybe so literal-minded that he’s unable to fathom irony.
Turns out he does have something else to offer. Bugs. In the middle of the night, he wakes with a panic about aphids in the bed, feeling bitten, pointing out unseeable lice until Aggie sees them too. He also brings a story about medical experiments and time served in “the Gulf,” which makes him a veteran, with a doctor he remembers and distrusts, a “them” who change minute by minute, and a microscope he uses to peer at the bugs in his blood, which he drops onto slides by candlelight (no word on the surveillance possibilities in electricity).
Aggie’s own trip to an outside doctor with RC takes place off screen (William Friedkin’s film is based on Tracy Letts’ play, and it maintains a certain one-room fixation), but the diagnosis is that her wounds — jarring red jabbies on her throat and arms — are self-inflicted. When RC decides she’s going to save Aggie from Peter (her own guilt warping around her, for she found him and brought him to Aggie), Peter unravels spectacularly. Revealing his own torso, a wretched map of his superficial efforts to dig out the bugs he knows have been implanted and now grow and mutate inside him, he then seems almost to lurch into himself. He slaps at bugs unseen, beats his head, then begins to flop uncontrollably on the bed. The women clutch at him and try to make him still, their faces turned from the camera, which watches from an angle slightly above them, curious or perplexed, but not too close.
In another movie (say, The Exorcist), this flailing would signal possession or maybe insanity. Here the meaning remains aptly unclear. For the bugs are everywhere. Though Aggie wants not trust Peter, their dips into each other, embraces in the midst of fear, are marked as such, with chopper sounds and lights flashing and wind whipping, as if they are alone amid world-ending calamity (or about to be swooped away by Peter’s military tormenters). Here as well the sources of bugs — infections and ideas — remain unknown. Arriving at the moment Jerry gets out of jail, Peter may be Aggie’s figment. Or she may be his, or perhaps neither Jerry nor Peter exists in the forms she’s seeing.
Whether Aggie is herself a product of particular horrors — whether she’s watched too much television, absorbed her own lost child into herself, or believes terrorists mean to invade Oklahoma the very second they get their chance — also remains unknown. Wholly metaphorical and wholly literal at once, she’s condemned to an apocalyptic, distractingly bizarre finale, as her motel room is completely insulated in aluminum foil and Peter teeters about, his face swollen and bloodied from self-performed tooth pullings. Gazing on his horrific face, she lets loose her story, the many pieces of conspiracy and fear that make the world go now. It’s nutty and awful and not so compelling as the film’s previous, now remarkably subtler hour. But Aggie’s story, so utterly not hers, so much a mishmash of “stuff” she’s been told and heard, is plausible, suddenly, to her.