Loosely based on the works (and less loosely on the life) of infamous author William S. Burroughs, David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is the perfect cinematic blend of art house, crime noir, horror and surrealism. Seeing as how Naked Lunch (the novel) is a totally free form work that really hasn't got much of an actual narrative, Cronenberg made the artistic decision to base his film of the same name on parts of the titular novel and the rest on actual events from Burroughs' life. He also liberally mixes in doses of aspects from his other books (it's not hard to see parts of both Junkie and Exterminator in the film) - so it's not quite a literal adaptation of a book that was once described as unfilmable, but it's damn good nonetheless.
A perfectly cast Peter Weller (probably best known as Robocop) plays William Lee (a pseudonym that Burroughs used quite often - Lee was his mother's maiden name), a down on his luck exterminator who lives in a ramshackle apartment with his wife, Joan (Judy Davis). Joan has a bad habit of heating up the bug powder that Lee uses in his job as a bug killer and shooting it into her veins much like a heroin addict would do. If a needle isn't available, she's more than willing to make do by simply rubbing some of the powder on her lips and ingesting it orally.
She slowly pulls Lee into her world of addiction and gets him into the powder as well. The two of them fall into a drugged out state and when Lee decides it's time for the 'William Tell' trick, he ends up shooting her in the head (an event that actually occurred when Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer Burroughs, in the head while performing the same stunt one night during a bender in Mexico). After this happens, Lee becomes more and more dependent on the bug powder he uses and slowly but surely begins to spiral into the throes of addiction while the line between hallucination and reality becomes very, very blurred.
Then Lee's typewriter turns into a twitching, talking cockroach that also ingests the powder (through a twitching, sphincter-like orifice on its back). If that weren't weird enough, he begins to receive visits from some man-sized insect like creatures that sprout some very unsubtle sexual organs. As all of this occurs, Lee begins to spend more and more time in 'The Interzone.'
'The Interzone' is a Middle Eastern realm that resembles a Turkey or Morocco of the period. It's inhabited by these strange insects that Lee has been seeing and communicating with, as well as a rash of bizarre characters more human in appearance. One of these is a mysterious man named Tom Frost (Ian Holm), another a homosexual with an abhorrent lust for young men that teeters on the pedophilic named Yves Cloquet (Julian Sands of Dario Argento's The Phantom Of The Opera). Then there's a doctor named Benway (played by Roy Scheder of Jaws) who is only too happy to help Lee with his chemical dependency but who may have some other more sinister motives at hand that Lee is unaware of.
Cronenberg's envisioning of Burroughs' work and his life results in a film that is simultaneously beautiful and repugnant. It looks absolutely amazing. His use of shadows and colors results in a noirish look and feel that, when combined with some of the grotesque imagery courtesy of the insect effects, really throws the viewer for a loop. Though the film is heavy on brown and orange, the film manages to create an atmosphere all its own, something wholly unique and instantly identifiable as Naked Lunch (the movie, if not the book).
The tagline for the film was 'Exterminate all rational thought' - a line of dialogue Lee utters to his writer friends over coffee. If you take that advice literally and throw essential filmic and literary conventions out the window, then Naked Lunch succeeds in that it tells a rational story of a man's struggle with addiction and perversion in an irrational manner. Cronenberg's treatment of Burroughs' well documented and admitted homosexuality and drug addiction is handled in a classy and thought provoking manner when, in all likelihood, it probably would have been far easier from a narrative standard to just show it in a more blatant, exploitative display rather than the quiet and deliberate manner in which it's portrayed in the film.
The special effects used for the insect creatures are thoroughly disgusting and despite some obvious prosthetics in a few scenes, they are very effective. When the bug jumps on top of Lee while he's having sex with a woman and joins in on the act, the viewer is quite taken aback by it while all the while the characters involved in the scene certainly are not. The entire idea of bugs growing and using some very human looking sexual organs is pretty bizarre in its own right and fits right in with Cronenberg's notorious 'body horror' motif. It also works well as a cinematic interpretation of Burroughs' penchant for describing the sex act in his novels in a way that manages more to repulse than to titillate (anyone who has read The Soft Machine will likely have come away with the same impression).
The real star of the show though is Weller. His performance as William Lee is dead on and anyone who has ever heard Burroughs speak or seen him, be it in any of the short films he was involved with by the likes of Conrad Rooks and Anthony Bach or in something like the documentary presented on the extra features section of this disc, will have to admire just how well Weller nailed it for this part. The consistently monotone voice, the deadpan reactions to what is going on around him, and the sarcastic nature with which he treats those he comes into contact with are all characteristics that are brought to life in Weller's performance.
An expertly directed film with a strong sense of very black humor running through it, Naked Lunch is an engrossing and challenging movie that stands as a testament to Cronenberg's ability to make films that are unique, disturbing, and always interesting. His take on Burroughs' life and work is impressive and almost definitive in the way that it brings together so many of the themes for which the late author is known for.
Criterion presents Naked Lunch in its original aspect ratio of 1.78.1 widescreen in AVC encoded 1080p high definition. The director approved transfer offers quite a nice upgrade over the DVD, not just in detail as you'd expect but also in color reproduction. For lack of a better way to put it, Naked Lunch can be a very brown looking movie - the color is used a lot in the film and on DVD it sometimes meant things looked a bit drab. Here that's not the case, the colors look more natural and have a much more realistic hue to them. Detail is, however, also noticeably improved. You'll notice this pretty much constantly throughout the movie, from facial close ups where it's really obvious to more subtle details like the flecks of paint on a typewriter. Texture is also very strong, you'll see it in the materials used in the costumes and you'll notice it in the sets used throughout the movie too. Print damage is never an issue here, the image is clean but thankfully there's no evidence of digital tampering so the movie's grain structure appears to be intact, not mucked with or slathered with noise reduction. There are no issues with edge enhancement or compression artifacts and all in all, the movie really translates to Blu-ray quite nicely.
The DTS-HD 2.0 Surround Mix, in the film's native English, is also much improved over the already very nice DVD release. Howard Shore's score has more weight and depth to it and so too does the dialogue. Weller's monotone delivery sounds a bit fuller here, while the sound effects such as the skittering noises that the insects make in the movie are weirder than ever by way of this lossless mix. There's good directionality throughout and there are no issues to report with any traces of hiss or distortion. Levels are perfectly balanced and when it's all said and done the movie sounds excellent. Sound plays a very important part in the experience that is Naked Lunch and the enhanced clarity and depth that this mix provides really helps to make for an impressive There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided but English closed captioning is there for those who want it.
Criterion have carried over all of the excellent extras from their two-disc DVD release to this Blu-ray offering. Before we even get to what's on the disc, special attention must be made to the excellent booklet that is included inside the keepcase. Not only does it include the cast and crew information as well as the chapter stop list, but it also has a four page essay entitled Drifting In And Out Of A Kafkaesque Reality by Janet Maslin. Maslin touches on some of the literary aspects that Cronenberg deliberately brought across in his adaptation of Burroughs' work. Gary Indiana supplies a nine page essay entitled simply Burroughs, which delves into some biographical information and places it in the context of the author's work. The third essay is So Deep In My Hear That You're Really A Part Of Me by Chris Rodley. This nine page piece looks at Burroughs' influence on Cronenberg's work and how it finally manifests itself on screen with this adaptation. The last essay in the booklet is by the late William S. Burroughs himself and is called On David Cronenberg And Naked Lunch. Over five pages, he discusses the difficulty that he had writing the novel in the first place and how he became aware of Cronenberg's desire to adapt the novel for the big screen. There are some great archival photographs included in here as well - absolutely worth reading if you're a fan of the movie or the people behind it.
On the disc itself, the extras kick off with a feature length commentary from director David Cronenberg and lead actor Peter Weller. The two of them relate their experiences making the movie and their thoughts on the end result and the entire process that they went through bringing this most difficult novel to life on the screen. Those who have problems resolving what the film is actually about would do well to listen the track as it does go a long way towards explaining a few of the more bizarre aspects of the film.
From here we move on to an almost hour long documentary from a London Weekend Television broadcast called Naked Making Lunch, directed by Chris Rodley. It's a pretty comprehensive piece that takes a look at all aspects of the film, from pre to post production and all parts in between. Cronenberg, Weller and Burroughs are all on hand and all have something to say about the film and about getting it off the ground. A lot of good behind the scenes footage is also to be found in this piece and it's very much worth watching.
The editor of Cinefex Magazine, Jody Duncan, provides an illustrated essay explaining the special effects used in the film which uses a lot of pieces from Cronenberg's personal collection of memorabilia. There is also an audio track included here which features Burroughs reading selected passages from his novel, a gallery of promotional and marketing material, and a great selection of archival stills of William S. Burroughs that were taken from the Allen Ginsberg Trust. The heavy involvement of Cronenberg and Weller in the extra features result in a lot of interesting material for fans to delve into and it's all wrapped up in some very stylish looking animated menus.
David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is not a film for everyone but for those who enjoy his unique brand of filmmaking it's very much an important movie. Criterion has carried over all of the extras from their excellent two-disc DVD special edition from a few years ago and provided an excellent high definition transfer and new lossless audio, making this a very nice upgrade indeed. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.