FILM REVIEW: Naked Lunch (1991)

Dir. David Cronenberg. Run Time: 115 mins. R 18+.


(Theatrical Release Poster)

Cronenberg’s adaptation of William S. Burroughs‘ seminal work of the beat generation Naked Lunch is as wild, wacky, and outrageous as one might expect it to be. Fuelled by drugs, sex, and grotesque special effects the film is a visual feast of decadence and depravity.

The story revolves around Burroughs’ own fictional self named Bill Lee (whose lines are mumbled exceptionally by Peter Weller) who, after accidentally killing his wife (Judy Davis) in a party trick gone wrong (a real event if you feel like reading up on the life on the immensely interesting writer) flees to the strange land of ‘Interzone’. Drugs and intrigue abound in this new world as Lee finds himself embroiled in a network of spy agents and international politics, but this narrative is about as irrelevant as it is hard to follow. No, the real story here is the meta-narrative in which Bill Lee uses his weird drug fuelled fantasies of Interzone to write his novel Naked Lunch.

The audience is constantly flipped from the mind of Lee, where everything is exactly the terrifying reality that his drug addled brain has constructed around him, to the more normal worlds of his writer friends, Hank (Nicholas Campbell) and Martin (Michael Zelniker) – renamed inserts of beat writers Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac – who try to keep Lee under control while he writes his novel.

These perspective shifts are handled with great skill as Cronenberg slides in and out of the various worlds with such ease so that it almost becomes difficult for even the viewer to prise them apart. The madness, despair, and isolation depicted in this film is contagious flowing through the screen and into the minds of the audience.

I suppose for some this might be seen as the movie’s failing. It is dry, dark, and sparse with little understandable motivation and multiple scenes of abject horror, but for fans of the original novel and the whole idea of the beat generation I think that Naked Lunch will be an instant hit. It is also, in my opinion, one of Cronenberg’s least pretentious films and one which actually showcases his skill as a filmmaker rather than simply showing his penchant for showcasing the weird.

The direction (coupled with the wonderfully evocative free-jazz soundtrack) work very hard to capture the unease and loneliness of our tragic protagonist and, I’ve got to say, that it actually works. Even the obnoxiously overt special effects don’t fall to level of mere shock value (as they did in, say, Videodrome (1983)), but rather aid the film in creating a visceral sense of absolute disgust.

Overall I must say that I was incredibly pleased with Naked Lunch, and as a big fan of the book I wasn’t disappointed. It is by no means a faithful translation of the text, because that would be impossible, but nevertheless it works as a companion piece and an equal to that wonderful novel. It is a film that I would highly recommend to anyone who thinks that they might have the stomach and the inclination to submit themselves to the weird horrors of both Burroughs and Cronenberg at the same time.

SIDENOTE: Naked Lunch is listed at #831 on the list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

RATING: 9/10



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