Bug Revels in the Creepy Magic of Michael Shannon

By Robert Silva


Michael Shannon (The Shape of Water, Boardwalk Empire) is an actor with a reputation for intensity — and for playing obsessed weirdos. To understand why, you have to go back to 2006 and his first major role, in Bug,

Before it swept through multiplexes in 2006, Bug was an acclaimed play by Tracy Letts (the acclaimed playwright who also stars on Divorce). Shannon earned accolades for his high-wire performance — and even a back-handed DiCaprio comparison in the New York Times. In helming the horror-tinged adaptation, director William Friedkin (The Exorcist) fought to keep Shannon in the role of a paranoid drifter, even though the studio wanted a bankable star.

“I’ve never known an actor more focused, dedicated, or capable of reaching the outer ranges of human behavior,” the filmmaker wrote in his 2013 memoir.

Friedkin was ahead of the curve in realizing there’s no substitute for Shannon when you want to make the bizarre palpable. (The premise of Bug: Beliefs are like deadly viruses; be careful whose company you keep or you might get infected.)

The director did cast one A-list star, Ashley Judd, who gives one of her best performances as Agnes, a bartender with ample baggage living out of a fleabag motel. Her young son vanished from a supermarket years ago; her abusive ex, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr.), is fresh out of jail and stalking her.

Enter Michael Shannon as Peter, a stranger who gets invited over for a night of partying by Agnes’s friend R.C. Peter is quiet, a bit of a closed book. But he listens to Agnes, not something she’s used to. They spend the night together, and Peter’s story reveals itself: He’s Gulf War veteran on the run from a government hospital. There are intimations of conspiracy, experiments.

Dealbreaker? Maybe for somebody else, but Agnes wants to believe. Her willingness to empathize either makes her the ideal protector for Peter — or the perfect victim.

As tensions build, and the bugs start buzzing, the audience, like Agnes, seesaws between belief in the conspiracies surrounding Peter, and cold skepticism. But even if Peter’s view of reality is warped, that doesn’t mean it isn’t grounded in some truth.

“One time, maybe a long time ago, people were safe, but that’s all over,” he tells Agnes. “Not anymore, not on this planet. We’ll never really be safe again. We can’t be, not with all the technology, the chemicals, the information…”

In a time when conspiracy theories have gone mainstream, Bug enhances their allure and power. Do we swallow conspiracy theories because they give order to a world that is otherwise painful, confusing and random? Is that type of unconditional belief any different than love?

Rest assured, Bug doesn’t linger on philosophical quandaries. It was promoted as a horror movie, and doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Halfway through, Bug takes a turn that shows how controlled an actor Shannon is. The story free-falls toward a climax that will show how far we’ll go to be loved, to be heard, to have our thoughts reflected back to ourselves. As promised, it’s terrifying.