Bug Review
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Gulf War veteran Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) acknowledges that he’s a little unusual and can make others uncomfortable, but waitress Agnes White (Ashley Judd) finds herself strangely drawn to him all the same. Holed up in a grimy Oklahoma hotel room where she medicates herself with tumblers of booze and lines of coke, Agnes is in desperate need of some human contact to ease the pain she feels from the loss of her missing son and her paranoia over the recent prison release of her abusive ex, Goss (Harry Connick Jr.). Peter also harbors beliefs that someone is out to get him. He’s convinced that the military is monitoring his every move, and they’re waiting for the right moment to scoop him up.

One night in bed, Peter cries out that he’s been bitten by an aphid, and he roots through the sheets to find them teeming with the bugs. Agnes can’t see them, but Peter’s insistence of the infestation and the red sores on his body are suitably convincing. Before long, the room has been sprayed and is covered in traps and fly strips, but the bug bites worsen, covering their scratched torsos and limbs in swollen patches. Could the bugs be coming from egg sacs implanted in Peter by the people who are after him?

  
 
Bug director William Friedkin builds the paranoia to a crescendo and makes the audience feel like creepy-crawlies are marching across our skin, too. Tracy Letts’s screenplay, an adaptation of his stage production, enhances this quality by refusing to commit to what’s real and what’s in the minds of the characters. The inclination is to believe that Peter and Agnes are diving headlong into madness—but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

The uncertainty about the truth of the situation captivates for a while; however, as the characters descend into further derangement, their rantings and ravings sound more and more like existential twaddle. Bug straddles the lines of genre seediness and high art pretension, but it’s not enough of a cheap thrill or mindbender to succeed at either.

Although most often associated with glossy thrillers, Judd can be at her best in deglamorized, salt-of-the-earth roles, particularly her breakthrough part in Ruby in Paradise. She tries her best to provide a believable guide into Bug’s psychological horror, but she’s undermined by a plot and direction that invest the unhinged proceedings with far more gravitas than they can withstand.

Judd and Shannon deliver the dialogue with conviction even as it becomes increasingly purple. For a time, there’s the hope that the relentless talking might lead to a substantial revelation, but Bug’s aim is elsewhere. This is a well-dressed technical exercise, a filmed workshop that provides flattering moments for all involved but leaves viewers on the outside looking in.

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