Even during the heyday of the American paranoia thriller, there was never a performance quite like the one given by Michael Shannon in William Friedkin‘s take-no-prisoners adaptation of Tracy Letts‘s off-Broadway play about fear and loathing in an Oklahoma motel room. As Peter Evans, the blandly named, seemingly innocuous drifter who appears one evening at the doorstep of Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a battered wife terrified of her ex-con husband’s return, Shannon has either officially arrived onscreen or carved out a memorable cult niche. It was a sly move on Friedkin’s part to have Shannon reprise his stage role; largely unknown to movie audiences, Shannon makes for a persuasive blank slate, an unknown entity. The plot trajectory of “Bug,” though originating from Agnes’s point of view, relies upon the slow peeling away at Peter’s psychosis, and it functions best when you don’t know where it, or Peter, or Shannon, is going. Eyes set so widely apart he looks like a praying mantis, the actor moves gradually and unrelentingly from possible savior to frenetic phantasm; and as he strips himself down, he achieves something like grace – his performance feels like an authentic inner howl, a splattering of soul, at once unwieldy and intimidatingly in control.
It’s tough to talk of “Bug” without revealing too much, as its pleasures and pains are connected to the state of agitation and anxiety it forces upon the viewer. But it may help to say what “Bug” is: a love story between two empty shells, vulnerable after years of systematic abuse, whether by society or men; a stripped-down theater piece, mostly a two-person show (although Harry Connick Jr. is on hand to flash his menacing pearly whites as Agnes’s swaggering ex); and, most importantly, a goddamned millennial inferno, less outwardly political than a spitting, warped evocation of a contemporary world choking on its own gurgling blood. The enigma of Peter’s identity isn’t as important as what he represents and what he has internalized; where he’s escaped from not as edifying as where (and to whom) he can possibly turn. Despite its nagging mysteries, “Bug” is fairly straightforward in its dementia, building to a raging catharsis so pure in its ecstatic horror, it will undoubtedly alienate many viewers.
Yet Friedkin’s classical building and release of tension, and expert honing of his actors’ skills ensures that you’ll want to join him for the ride. In fact, despite Friedkin’s reputation as a master suspense builder, “Bug” outdoes most of his oeuvre for sheer nerve-wracking oomph (and, oh my, it’s certainly the best thing he’s done in at least twenty years). He’s also surprisingly sensitive to his leads, not a trait he’s best known for: in addition to brilliantly utilizing Shannon’s preternatural gifts-the actor has a gaze of focused benevolence; he contains a world of empathy in one shuddered look that can instantly snuff out – Friedkin allows space for Judd’s shattered Agnes to blossom. Friedkin knows that in order for “Bug” to work, Agnes cannot be judged for her willful descent into oblivion. Even amidst its shocks, “Bug” allows its characters terrible dignity.
Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and the managing editor at the Criterion Collection.