David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch was released in 1991, and is based on the William S. Burroughs novel of the same name.
This film is about an exterminator named Bill Lee – who is played here by Peter Weller of RoboCop fame. Bill is an ex-junkie, who suffers a relapse into addiction once he discovers that his wife is addicted to the bug powder which he uses on the job. She persuades him to join her one night, and after a bit of hesitation, he gives it a try. The hallucinations start shortly thereafter. Giant bugs start spouting conspiracy theories to him during an interrogation. A giant alien-like creature, called a “mugwump”, has a conversation with him at a bar. If it sounds strange to you now, just wait.
The author of “Naked Lunch” is the famed and controversial William S. Burroughs, and much of the story is inspired by events from his personal life, including the death of his wife, in which a random game of William Tell that goes horribly awry. He flees the scene with a typewriter and a stash of various narcotics, and heads off to the “Interzone,” an exotic city that may or may not exist inside of his head. While he is in the “Interzone,” his hallucinations get worse. His typewriter transforms into a demanding, bug-like creature that constantly reminds him of his wife’s death – as well as his closeted homosexuality.
Soon, Bill becomes a victim of his own delusions, believing that he must write a report on the circumstances surrounding his wife’s demise. The contents of this report eventually become the novel “Naked Lunch”. As expected, the line between reality and fiction becomes non-existent. Some of the hallucinations are so strange that they cannot be printed here, for fear of offending someone – however, one thing is certain: this is definitely a film that requires a second viewing.
The character William Lee is loosely based on author William S. Burroughs, and Peter Sellars flawlessly channels Burroughs in this beautifully understated performance, which was sadly overlooked by the Academy.
If you are in the mood for something different – and I stress the word different, then you may want to check this out. The point of the film is to disorient you, putting you in the shoes of the protagonist, Bill Lee, who we follow on this descent into madness, this dark journey of the creative process. This is a film that stays with you for quite some time, and it is very thought provoking. David Cronenberg is one of the best directors in the business, and he wisely blends elements of the novel with those of Burroughs’ real life, resulting in a strange mix of fantasy and biography. If you are familiar with Cronenberg or David Lynch, you will probably want to see this, assuming that you have enjoyed their previous offerings to cinema. You may want to follow this up with a similar film named Barton Fink, which was released the same year, and also stars Judy Davis in a supporting role.
Naked Lunch is available on DVD and Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.