Two lonely hearts crescendo into insect-obsessed, codependent madness in “Bug,” a psycho-romantic horror thriller directed by 1970s heavyweight William Friedkin. Don’t expect an effects-packed, extravagant chiller — never mind Friedkin’s “Exorcist” credentials. The film is a chamber-scale, material-worldly brand of creeper and — until it goes ludicrous — an inspired, crawly look at human need.
Set in tumbleweedy Oklahoma, the drama stars Ashley Judd as stagnating waitress Agnes, who lives in a run-down motel and uses substances to forget a personal tragedy. Agnes gets a shake-up with the entrance of first her paroled abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.), and then a more welcome sort of madman in the form of spookily low-key drifter Peter (Michael Shannon, reprising his stage role).
Bonding in loneliness, Agnes and Peter become lovers. The horror kicks in when Peter, after finding a bug in the bed, becomes convinced aphids are infesting his body — due, he claims, to a military experiment performed on him. Agnes joins him in delusion. Their psychosis escalates into tragedy.
Based on the play by Tracy Letts (also acting as screenwriter), the film is two parts bang-up horror flick and one-third disaster. Friedkin remains a commanding, stylish filmmaker, and he laces the claustrophobic air with tension and unsettling sonic elements.
The performances, meanwhile, glow psychologically. Judd turns a potentially insulting needy-female role into a powerful study in desperation. Shannon, whose deceptively placid face hauntingly registers Peter’s fears, is equally strong.
But eventually, Letts’ script enters ridiculous terrain, complete with a contempo-Gothic climax, and the result betrays the characters’ dignity and nearly sinks the film.
Starring Ashley Judd, Michael Shannon, Harry Connick Jr., Lynn Collins
Written by Tracy Letts, adapted from his play
Directed by William Friedkin
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes