Seems all we ever talk about is bugs. But I guess I’d rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody.
– Ashley Judd, as Aggy, In Bug (2006).
Horror that deals with the psychological breakdown of the mind is more cutting than any of the creature-features simply because mental illness is real and it can happen to any of us. Like the paranoia and bugs that are the themes of this story, mental illness can be insidious; it can creep up on us slowly and eat away at our reason and sense of reality.
Bug, based on Tracy Letts’ play (who also wrote the screenplay) and directed by William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection), is a powerful and stylish horror that improves with each viewing. The cast give perfect performances and the tension builds from a relaxed opening to a nightmare climax.
Ashley Judd plays Aggy, a waitress leading a lonely existence in a rundown Oklahoma motel room. She’s also a cocaine addict, plagued by a ringing telephone, and her violent ex-con ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Conick Jr.), while grieving over the abduction of her six-year-old son.
Desperate for love and companionship, Aggy latches on to Peter (Michael Shannon), a nervous drifter who confides in her that he’s on the run from the army after they had experimented on him by implanting hybrid bugs into his body and pumping him full of drugs.
Aggy rejects the attempts of her only true friend, R.C. (Lynn Collins), and the mysterious Dr. Sweet’s (Brian F. O'Byrne) attempts to “rescue” them from their destructive situation. He describes Peter as “a delusional paranoid with schizophrenic tendancies”.
Now closed off from the world, Aggy and Peter hole up in the motel room and wage war against the infestation.
The power of this story is in its ability to raise questions in the viewer’s mind. What is really going in with Aggy? Are the bugs and Peter’s conspiracy theories real or shared delusions that Aggy comes to accept as her sanity crumbles? Is it a case that it’s not really paranoia if (they) are really watching you? Are the titular bugs really insect or in fact a new form of surveillance? Are Aggy and Peter the subject of a cruel experiment? Could it simply be that Aggy and Peter, fuelled by cocaine, paranoia and irrational fears, are both mentally ill and they drag each other down into the abyss? Are Peter and Dr. Sweet real or just Aggy’s hallucination?
It’s a telling detail near the climax of the movie, at the moment when Jerry attempts to break into the motel room. From the inside we hear the thunderous roar of a helicopter, the room shakes violently, and powerful search lights shine in through the windows. However, outside the door, from Jerry’s perspective, there are no helicopters.
Madness breeds madness.