“Exterminate all rational thought.” The work of William Burroughs could well be said to follow this edict, dodging all traditional aspects of narrative and decorum. It’s also a phrase spoken by the protagonist early of this remarkable film adaptation of Burroughs’ most notorious novel. Strangely, what makes the film so compelling is just how rationally director David Cronenberg handles his source material. And the great irony is this—never has such a wealth of insight into the mind of William Burroughs been available, until now.
Much has been made of how unfilmable a novel Naked Lunch really is. In a documentary included on the set’s second disc, Cronenberg notes just how daunting but attractive the task was for him. Rather than directly transpose the disjointed and hallucinatory narrative of the book, Cronenberg created a meta-narrative in his script, incorporating aspects of Burroughs’ life to create a meditation on the transitory nature of reality and the potential horrors of pursuing the writing life.
The “story” follows William Lee (Peter Weller), a cynical and stoic New York exterminator who is forced into writing after becoming addicted to his own bug powder and killing his wife (Judy Davis, in one of her finest performances). As his hallucinations become indistinguishable from reality, he spirals into his own imagination; lost in a horrific world of monstrous creatures called mugwumps and insectoid typewriters.
While at times truly grotesque, the film is gorgeous, with lush cinematography by Peter Suchitzky and Carol Spier’s detailed production design. Naked Lunch is a brilliant examination of one of the 20th Century’s most iconoclastic literary voices by one of its most unique filmmakers.