Twenty years after it was first staged, Tracy Letts’s play Bug has much to say about the character and tone of our times. Its fatalism and frantic pitch, brilliantly translated to the screen by film director William Friedkin in 2006, captures widely felt personal and political anxieties in a culture that craves comfort but fears control.
In connecting a symbol of surveillance with a synonym for illness, the title of Letts’s play neatly points to a pathology: rabid suspicion towards the state, epitomized in extreme terms in the character of Peter Evans—a paranoid schizophrenic and conspiracy theorist. Neither justifying nor condemning the moral and legal implications of surveillance, Bug stands out among recent work dealing with the subject, in leaving open to question the very fact that its main characters, Peter and Agnes, are being watched by unseen parties.
The rising, feverish anxiety of Letts’s work is superbly embodied by Michael Shannon and Ashley Judd, who feature in the leading roles in Friedkin’s adaptation—Shannon had worked with Letts for the stage production since its London debut in 1996. Judd plays Agnes, a woman whose young son is missing and who fears the reappearance of her violent ex-partner (Harry Conwick Jr.), the child’s father, following a prison sentence. Introduced to army deserter Peter (Shannon), by her friend RC (Lynn Collins), Agnes forms a romantic attachment and invites him to stay with her at the motel where she lives.
When Peter begins to see aphids everywhere and fears that he has been infected as a result of a military experiment, Agnes’s newfound love for Peter, her emotional vulnerability, fear and the enduring loss that she has experienced lead her to exhibit the same delusions that Peter reveals, in ever more extreme ways. A sore tooth leads Peter to wild speculations about his own persecution by the army and wider geopolitical machinations. Agnes meanwhile begins to feed her maternal loss with self-destructive imaginings, before the pair ultimately unite in self-immolation.
The bond between Peter and Agnes is made so captivating by the way in which Shannon and Judd express the characters’ respective loneliness and vulnerability, their nervous intimacy and growing affection and concern for one another. Bug is after all a story of love between two people; a feeling also commonly described, usually in jest, as a sickness: the love bug. In a somewhat black comic fashion, then, Letts also frames love as a shared craziness. A folie à deux, but with still more of interest to say about a pervading unease felt in modern America.
Bug speaks to the hysterical present, in which understandable concerns about state power and intrusion by technology companies, big finance and military intelligence are overrun by a pernicious victimhood, excessive self-regard and even paranoid delusion coagulating into a hopeless distrust of the government, and other traditional forms of authority.
Subtly adopting the point of view of the couple—given emphasis in one late scene, when a helicopter heard moving over the motel appears to cause Agnes’s room to shake violently, while a cut to an exterior shot of the room suggests no such occurrence—what is explored is the tendency within individuals to perceive injustices, personal attack, harassment and conspiracy without reasonable cause. The viral nature of this victimhood and the self-reinforcing tendency that it can birth is given a vivid representation. But Agnes's behaviour in particular is further complicated by the real threat posed to Agnes by her ex-partner, who makes a sudden reappearance after leaving prison.
What moral and emotional reactions are sensible, and where lines ought to be drawn, are open to question. As such, the material shares the moral concerns that shape much of Friedkin’s best work, which typically sees the moral sphere as one rife with difficult ambiguities, and the individual person as a site of conflicting tendencies.
Friedkin also expresses such ambiguities through blurring the distinguishing features of familiar genres. Peter Evans could be taken for a stock character of the horror genre: the mysterious visitor who is not as he first appears to be. This character type has been of interest to Friedkin since his earliest screen adaptation: Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, with which Bug shares many visual and tonal qualities, and even in Friedkin’s justifiably maligned ‘evil trees’ thriller The Guardian. But Pinter’s play is not a work of horror in the conventional sense, reveling in Gothic iconography and bloodletting. Rather it is an existentialist drama that dissolves the quiet politeness of everyday life to mine the secrets that stir beneath the surface. It sees the comforts of the domestic space riven by a malign presence to probe into psychological undercurrents. Friedkin, though, is able to use his experience with both kinds of material in Bug. Friedkin lights the combustible elements of Letts’s work, evokes Pinter’s sinister drawing room play and the bodily excess of his most successful film The Exorcist, not only connecting the younger playwright with his English predecessor but continuing Friedkin’s fascination with moral ambivalence, violence and obsession—all the while subverting Hollywood norms as he has since reigniting the crime thriller genre with The French Connection.
Taken to operatic heights, Bug nevertheless reflects something worryingly off balance in the contemporary mindset, where sense is sought ceaselessly despite the assurance with which religious faith has been dismissed by many in secular societies. Where Friedkin’s 1973 blockbuster The Exorcist explores the loss of faith in God in the face of demonic evil, Bug shows the disturbing effects of the loss of faith in a Godless society, and the desperate search for meaning amidst loneliness and trauma. We find an articulation of this loss of faith in another Friedkin film, To Live and Die in L.A., in which reckless Treasury agent Richard Chance answers negatively a question searchingly put by a female informant: whether he thinks the “stars are God’s eyes.”
Where the watchful eye of the Lord has been refused as terrifying, tyrannical or simply unbelievable, that omniscient power has seemingly been replaced by a persecuting, all-seeing eye of the state. The lights overhead are, for Peter, searchlights; the silence of the skies, listened to more attentively, carry the humming of machines. Agnes is taunted by that familiar connecting line between private and public space: the telephone. In the ten years since Friedkin’s film appeared, to little fanfare, fears and fantasies are fueled daily thanks to the glare of the information feeds of the Internet, a new invasive medium that connects us to the outside world and exacerbates its perils. The preoccupation with the inescapable threatening observer, and the need to nevertheless meet eye to eye with another tells us something fundamental about the human condition. The ways in which these preoccupations threaten romantic intimacy, personal trust and social arrangements have always been of profound interest. How emerging technologies and recent social and political developments will affect us further we are yet to discover. In Bug we have a fatalistic, though not altogether fantastical, intimation.