Directed By: David Cronenberg
Screenplay By: David Cronenberg
Based on the novel by William S. Burroughs
Produced By: Jeremy Thomas, Gabriellea Martinelli
Cast: Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Roy Scheider, Julian Sands
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 117 minutes
Review Date: January 14, 2011
Naked Lunch, David Cronenberg’s interpretation of the William S. Burroughs book on which it is based, is a strikingly peculiar film. When I finished it, I read a synopsis of the book and found that the film shares only a few of the characteristics present in the novel. The novel seems so convoluted and abstract that I’m equal parts surprised and impressed that Cronenberg even managed to put a film together. What he did put together I appreciate solely on a visceral, enigmatic front. It’s so altogether complex that I found it impossible to resist. It’s not a film I will be running back to see anytime soon, but if you’re looking for a mind-bending trip into the mind of William S. Burroughs, look no further.
The film stars Peter Weller as a soft-spoken exterminator named Bill. He carries with him yellow, powdery “bug dust” that he uses to kill roaches on sight. He runs out of the powder quickly, though, as he and his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), spend their evenings liquefying the powder like heroin and shooting it into their veins. When they run out of the drug, Bill visits Dr. Benway (Roy Scheider), who introduces him to a new high: “Dark Meat,” made from the flesh of the gigantic, aquatic Brazilian centipede.
This new drug is a doozy. The “bug dust” certainly induced a pleasurable high, but nothing compares to this. The “Dark Meat” brings Bill to the brink of madness, a madness that he craves more and more with each use. Under its influence, he hallucinates the appearance of large beetles and alien figures that voice strange demands to him. He listens to but doesn’t always agree with these abstractions, and when a beetle tells Bill to distrust his wife, he smashes it to bits. Bill and Joan, high on the “DM,” choose to play a leisurely game of William Tell. His aim must have been off, though, because when he’s done, his wife lay slumped on the floor with a hole in her head. Oops.
On the run from the police, Bill answers the call of his hallucinatory beetles. They encourage him to go to the “Interzone,” a Mediterranean-type village, and undertake the task (or mission, if you like) of murdering a Joan Frost. Lost in a constant state of paranoia and dreams, Bill finds himself on an espionage mission with no motive or foreseeable end. On his journey, Bill encounters a plethora of oddballs, ranging from the fantastic (Ian Holm as Tom Frost, Julian Sands as Yves Cloquet) to the downright baffling (Michael Zelniker as Martin). Around Bill, a series of events unfolds so random and tangential that the film becomes less of a plot-driven narrative and more of mere meditation. The whole film becomes a lucid dreamscape
For example, Bill spends a great deal of time writing on a typewriter (which often “buzzes” to life), filling out agent reports. He struggles with these drafts because he hasn’t the slightest clue what to write or to whom. He just types what the bugs tell him to, often shaping his lifestyle around their very whim. In other words, he has become an “Agent” for them, a malleable being driven by the mystery that lies before him. It took awhile to set in, but I believe the film became a mere allegory for William S. Burroughs’s life. Between the constant hallucinations, the eclectic characters, and the continuous changes in plot, it was difficult to comprehend what was happening onscreen. However, I think that is precisely the point Cronenberg was trying to convey. The film is not a so much a story as it is a “brain,” filled with thoughts, bouncing around in a fervent storm.
I, for one, believe this film is about repressed angst and writers’ block. I really don’t want to be too specific, because this Lynchian/Gilliam-type journey is truly breathtaking, and part of the fun is interpreting it for yourselves. It’s one of those “Hate it/Love it” types of films that is sure to split audiences in half. Check it out to see which side you stand on.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.