William Friedkin has always been a tough director to pin down, since he works in so many different genres, and eschews a recognizable visual sensibility in favor of feverish intensity and a hunger for verisimilitude that can be traced back to his early days directing documentaries. Bug takes Friedkin's rugged, hardcore anti-aesthetic to radical extremes. It's the kind of movie where the makeup department's primary preoccupation involves making everyone look as ugly as possible, and the production designer scours Home Depot, looking for the most hideous color of paint to slather indifferently against the walls of the squalid motel room that functions as the film's primary setting.
Like Friedkin's underrated previous film, The Hunted, the relentlessly claustrophobic Bug strips its story down to the basics. A dramatically grunged-up Ashley Judd is all jangled nerves and edgy intensity as a hard-luck waitress with a drinking problem, a coke habit she can't afford, a missing son, and an abusive ex-husband (Harry Connick Jr.) fresh out of jail and eager to pick up where he left off. Judd spies a brief respite from loneliness in the person of mysterious drifter Michael Shannon, an AWOL veteran with demons of his own.
As in The Exorcist, Friedkin establishes a tone of hard-edged, almost documentary-style realism before ratcheting up the horror to nearly unbearable levels. Bug skirts camp ridiculousness throughout, especially during a fever-dream last act in which Judd embraces Shannon's insanity with disconcerting conviction. Like a thinking man's The Number 23, Bug seems to take place largely inside the demented psyche of someone with a loosening grasp on reality. At other times, Bug suggests Safe as remade by David Cronenberg, both in its biological, venereal horror, and in its paranoia about a contemporary world hopelessly corrupted by viruses, germs, and infections, literal and metaphorical. Judd and Shannon's unnerving performances ensure that even when Bug leaps deliriously off the deep end, it remains rooted in the loneliness of two very sad people desperate for any kind of meaningful connection, no matter how mad or destructive. Even at its most preposterous—Friedkin's latest rivals his Druid horror flick The Guardian for sheer lunacy—Bug remains disconcerting, real, and raw. It poignantly suggests that some lost souls would rather be crazy and doomed than alone.