Bug is a film that’s very underrated and even underexposed. Directed by William Friedkin, this isn’t one of his most famous movies, despite being one of Friedkin’s most original and memorable offerings. This is a film about paranoia, and how existing in an echo-chamber is detrimental to someone’s mental health. If nobody’s there to challenge your assertions and beliefs, certain people may become over-zealous or a danger to themselves or others. Based on a play by Tracy Letts, this is potentially a very mainstream plot (don’t believe fringe ideas!) but the way it’s constructed, it’s far from being conventional or condescending.
Bug is about mental illness since schizophrenic people commonly see insects or snakes, but it’s also a film about conspiracy theories, which is a topic that’s more relevant than ever with conspiracies being belittled and demonised on a daily basis. Whether it’s ex-presidents or specky, limey TV presenters, “conspiracy theory” has become a dirty and shameful term thanks to an almost-daily conspiracy-bashing courtesy of broadcast and social media. During Donald Trump’s term in office, his high-profile supporters such as Alex Jones, his mindless followers, and even the president himself, have been wholesale co-opting and sabotaging conspiracies (which is a conspiracy in itself). It’s an extremely irritating situation because a handful of conspiracy theories are not outlandish or worthy of mockery. The assassination of John F. Kennedy for example, with the implausible reloading and trajectory of bullets, or the Twin Tower attacks with their impossibly identical collapsing (into their own footprint) from two differently positioned planes, are just common sense. In cases such as these, it’s the official narrative that sounds ludicrous. Whilst on the topic of conspiracies, I oddly remember Jim Caviezel in this film but like most Mandela Effects, I’m probably just mis-remembering it. But I digress.
Being a play, this film adaptation is set almost entirely in one location; a motel room. A waitress named Agnes (played by Ashley Judd) who is living in fear of her recently-paroled ex-husband Jerry (played by Harry Connick Jr.) meets a drifter named Peter (played by Michael Shannon). Peter begins telling Agnes a wild tale about governmental and intelligence agency control, weaving together a story about The Bildergerg Group, tracking devices, bugs (literal insects as well as, I assume, nano-technology), military experimentation, synthetic humans, manufactured diseases, population control, Jim Jones and the People’s Temple, Ted Kaczynski, Calspan and Timothy McVeigh. According to Peter, there’s a tracking microchip in every human born since 1982, but it’s not enough to track, “they” want control; so they created a subcutaneous biochip that was implanted into him and McVeigh, the latter, apparently controlled and coerced into being a robotic assassin. The conspiracy then begins to veer into the subject of a transmittable disease which could be seen as foreshadowing the Coronavirus vaccination conspiracy: “They want a chip that will self perpetuate, that will spread like a virus; that people can pass to each other, to everyone.”
In terms of acting, Ashley Judd is superb; cool, beautiful, but ultimately downtrodden and easily-led. Harry Connick Jr. is very convincing as a wife-beater with his slightly dead yet glassy eyes, and Michael Shannon is err… Michael Shannon (stern yet somehow expressionless) which is appropriate for his character, an ex-army vet. In my opinion, an abusive husband is a character that’s unneeded, especially since he’s the sane one amongst the gullible. Bug almost makes a hero out of a domestic abuser. 😒
The other problem for me is the direction. Yes, Friedkin is a brilliant director but here, he falls short of creating a tense atmosphere. William has stated that Bug doesn’t fit into any genre; it’s a thriller, romance, horror, and a comedy. Yes, Bug has a unique narrative or premise but as a story, despite it’s slightly comedic or romantic inclusions, is so obviously supposed to be a drama-thriller or better still, a psychological thriller. If Friedkin saw Bug within a defined genre, the final scene with the couple’s suicide could have been very emotional and should have brought a tear to the eye but alas, William hasn’t succeeded in creating something on a level of say One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Pan’s Labyrinth.
The other issue is, or was, the promotion. The trailer (above) makes it look like this flick is about a literal bug infestation (yawn). The poster’s tagline reads “First they send in their drone. Then they find their queen” which is too reminiscent of insect-based films like Mimic and Phase IV. An alternative poster, read “Paranoia is contagious” which possibly made the point of view too firm for the post-9/11, War On Terror noughties in which paranoia was the flavour of the decade. Either way, the promotional material did a disservice to the film and any potential success with the public. Like most cult classics however, this movie found and is still finding fans. That being said, there’s no blu-ray release here in the UK but Amazon Prime Video is currently showing it, albeit with Spanish subtitles which you cannot switch off!
Bug could be seen as an overtly anti-conspiracy movie, and in all likelihood it’s intended to be, especially with the tin-foil finale falling short of featuring “nut-jobs” in foil hats. But the inclusion of the Tuskegee study, the Edgewood Arsenal LSD experiments, and the allusion to Operation Paperclip (not mentioned by name) means there’s at least three provable conspiracies here. The opening and post-credit scene also alludes to a timeline that might be occurring in the mind, and the dodgy, pipe-toting doctor (Dr. Sweet played by Brían F. O’Byrne) makes Peter’s story sound more believable (especially when he confirms “that’s no delusion” when Agnes shows him an aphid). This is probably why so many mainstream critics (who are strongly anti-conspiracy theory) didn’t warm to it; they most likely wanted a clear-cut, patronising and even snooty look at paranoid people and their beliefs. Whatever your personal opinions are in regards to conspiracies, Bug is undoubtedly a classic conspiracy thriller; up there with Capricorn One, The Manchurian Candidate (original and remake), and Arlington Road, whether William Friedkin and Tracy Letts wanted it to be or not.