Based on the novel of the same name by William S. Burroughs, David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch is a wildly hallucinogenic story of addiction. Peter Weller stars as William Lee, an insect exterminator who develops a taste for shooting up the poison he uses to kill roaches. It’s his wife Joan (Judy Davis) who turns him on to the substance. She has casual sex with Lee’s friends, including the time Lee walks in on her with Hank (Nicholas Campbell) while Martin (Michael Zelniker) watches. Lee doesn’t seem to mind all that much, retreating to a bedroom to shoot up. Or maybe he does mind. A short spell later, Lee “accidentally” shoots Joan to death while they perform their “William Tell routine.” A giant talking cockroach told him it needed to be done.
Aside from that last bit about a talking bug, the set-up may sound like an intriguing start for a classic, old school film noir. However, it doesn’t being to scratch the surface of Cronenberg’s hauntingly surreal creation. Lee’s Clark Nova typewriter morphs into a similar bug who talks through a gigantic anus, only partially covered by its wings. The initial speaking insect had revealed to Lee that Joan was in fact an undercover agent for Interzone Incorporated. Not long after the ostensibly unintentional homicide, Lee retreats to Interzone, where he works on writing a book (it’s title: Naked Lunch). It’s difficult to know for sure how many of the goings-on in Interzone are real or imagined by Lee’s drug-addled mind (or a combination of the two). It’s in Interzone that Lee meets another version of his deceased wife, Joan Frost (also played by Davis).
The years since its 1991 theatrical release have done nothing to dull the dreamlike oddness of Naked Lunch. Cronenberg’s adaptation, which folds in meta-references to Burroughs’ real life (the writer was actually convicted of killing his wife in a similar fashion) and elements of his other books, is a truly bizarre viewing experience. When Lee is told part of his ongoing undercover mission in Interzone is to assume a homosexual identity, he’s seemingly conflicted in his feelings. Burroughs himself was troubled by this resistance on the part of Lee (essentially a version of himself). It could be interpreted as deeply paranoiac and homophobic, the way Lee is repulsed by this aspect of his ill-defined “mission.” In an essay by Burroughs (included in the Blu-ray booklet), the writer speculates that Cronenberg’s own heterosexual perspective may have influenced the adaptation.
Whatever the case, it seems clear that Lee’s journey is largely a nightmarish, drug-induced psychosis with only occasional intrusions from the so-called real world. Martin shows up again late in the film, quite confused by Lee’s apparent break from reality. “Exterminate all rational thought,” Lee tells his friends near the beginning of the film. He might as well be addressing the audience, too. Naked Lunch is a fascinating exploration of the subconscious, guilt, and sexual identity. But it’s also maddeningly challenging to sink one’s teeth into. Weller’s deadpan performance helps ground the film. The technical achievements (including the creature design and puppetry) are beyond reproach. Supporting turns by Ian Holm and Roy Scheider are tantalizing and laced with humor. Some viewers (myself included) may find it hard to connect with on an emotional level, but if you’re willing to submit to the trip, it’s well worth taking.
Cronenberg approved Criterion’s Blu-ray transfer and it’s not hard to see why. The earthy, golden-hued look of Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography is accurately captured. The grotesque creatures, such as the bug typewriters and mugwumps, are displayed in vivid detail. Grain is very fine and looks entirely natural. Criterion has put together a seriously handsome presentation of this supremely visually interesting film.
The audio options are limited to a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mix. While it may seem that this film was ripe for a 5.1 mix (and indeed there is one on the Italian import Blu-ray edition released by Eagle Pictures), the 2.0 is well balanced and very clean. Howard Shore’s score and Ornette Coleman’s saxophone solos are well blended with the always intelligible dialogue.
If you haven’t heard Criterion’s commentary track featuring Cronenberg and Peter Weller, ported over from their ten-year-old DVD release, you’ll want to spend the time. Recorded separately, both men bring a lot of insight to the table. Cronenberg understandably has the lion’s share of the running time, elaborating on what changes he made from the book (essential for those of us who haven’t read it). The 49-minute “Naked Making Lunch” is a 1992 documentary with interviews and on-set footage. Several still galleries are included, along with an hour’s worth of excerpts from a Burroughs-read audiobook recording of the novel. The “Marketing” section has a trailer, EPK featurette, a few minutes of B-roll footage, and two TV spots.
It was largely inscrutable upon its initial theatrical release. Twenty-plus years later, it remains so. Naked Lunch is also a singularly weird vision, one that knows how to draw viewers into its often repulsive world.