Naked Lunch (1991) (R)

David Cronenberg's "Naked Lunch" is much less an exercise in trying to translate William S. Burroughs' incoherent novel into a film and much more about the laborious and psychedelic process of being the author and writing such a book.
Drawing inspiration from many of Burroughs' works not limited to the title novel alone, Cronenberg somehow fashions a narrative from the basic gist of three books while simultaneously making it his own.
Gone is Burroughs' vision—as I see it—where addiction ravages the body. Instead, as Burroughs himself puts is, the film is more of a tightly wound thriller that works as a nonsensical rebuttal to the spy novel than a surrealist experience like the book was.
Anyways, that's enough snobbery for now.
The movie begins as Bill Lee (Peter Weller) is going from house to house as an exterminator; but in the middle of one job, he runs out of bug powder. We understand, without explanation, that we are in the middle of a slightly dystopian society. Bug powder is rationed and those who run out are accused of using it for their own nefarious purposes.
Bill—William Lee was a semi-autobiographical name for Burroughs himself—is left wondering what's happened to the bug powder. Two avant-garde seeming writers who he is friends with suggest that it is a "domestic issue". Bill rushes home to find that his wife Joan (Judy Davis) is shooting up the powder to get high.
He scolds her, but he cannot control her and in the end, he shoots up the bug powder too.
The next day he is taken in for questioning, and this is where we start to see the madness. Cronenberg was always one for practical special effects and he uses them in unusually gruesome ways, more so than John Carpenter. To properly address the madness, you should think of the tagline for the movie: exterminate all rational thought. This sentiment is given to us verbally by Bill Lee at the beginning of the movie, as if to remind us to submit to the whims of the film.
Bill is told that his wife is an Interzone agent and that he must kill her. He doesn't think much of it and chalks it up to being hallucinations. Later in the evening, he decides that he will play "William Tell" with his wife. This part is loosely based on Burroughs' own situation of accidentally killing his wife.
Now with a murder on his hands, Bill finds himself fleeing to the Interzone where sexual perversion and insect narcotics run wild.
Burroughs never conceals the homosexual urges of his characters. There is plenty to go around. But Cronenberg seems to skip around the issue for whatever reason—it could be his own orientation or the fact that no such story could have been told to a large audience in the early 90s. Yet Cronenberg finds time to fit this large area of Burroughs' writing into the movie...if it is the most nonsensical part of the film.
As Lee finds himself getting embroiled in the Interzone, the key character of Dr. Benway starts popping up again and again. If you've read the book, the name Benway gives you the chills. In the novel, Benway was a Frankenstein-ian mad scientist with an aptitude for rape. He is an almost non-present figure in the movie, though pivotal.
"Naked Lunch" punches from one scene to the next, rarely hesitating, not apologizing, and descending into even further madness.
At the end of it all though, Cronenberg seems very sympathetic towards Burroughs and you could see the movie as a love letter from one to the other. Cronenberg seems to feel—and I would have to agree—that being a writer like Burroughs must be hell.
Yet if you just watch "Naked Lunch" for the insane psychedelia, you won't be disappointed.
It remains one of the most original and compulsive movies to date.

Score: ★★★½

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