What could be a better pairing than director David Cronenberg and a drug induced trip through the mind of a bug exterminator turned writer? Naked Lunch looks to answer this intensely specific question as Cronenberg provides us with one of his finest pieces of work. After his three-year hiatus from directing feature films after Dead Ringers, his first film of the 1990s is a superb triumph, a return to form that blends his old school body horror conventions with the modernised dramatic turns of his later, 21st century works. Naked Lunch feels more like an experiment than anything else. A delve into the state of being in a maddening world where premises that are beyond the realm of capabilities are passed off as everyday. Its nuances and strange aura are both the greatest aspect of the film, yet also its most frustratingly confusing component. Ambiguous endings, plot points that are seemingly connected but not in the way you would expect; Naked Lunch thrives on the surreal, becoming one of Cronenberg’s weirdest movies.
Feeling more and more like a strange drug fuelled nightmare, the film follows Bill Lee (Peter Weller), a former exterminator who is hunted down by the police for using illegal bug killing powder. Persuaded to write once again by his friends, he isolates himself in a Mediterranean city where tales of love, subterfuge and ice-cold thrills become common rather than myth or legend. For some reason it reminded me of Barton Fink, a film that also released the same year as Naked Lunch. It also contains a story about a writer that struggles to break through his writer’s block and begins to experience surreal and other worldly happenings. The only real, major difference is that Naked Lunch takes this surrealist tone and turns up the vividness to 11.
Weller’s performance is a blend of audience reaction and acclimatisation to weirder and weirder scenarios. It’s stunning how easily Cronenberg manages to convince us that this is another part of the everyday lives of everyone depicted here. Nobody questions the bug poison addiction many residents of the city seem to have picked up for themselves, the cockroaches and aliens that litter the streets are residents just as they are and not something strange or a talking point. Showcasing the idea that the characters within have grown accustomed to these everyday oddities. The audience are thrown into the deep end, forced to adapt to the un-adaptable and those of us that manage that are in for one thrilling time.
A stacked cast provides us some great performances from the aforementioned Peter Weller, who stars in a great leading role that rivals his iconic turn in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. Alongside this are some nice turns from Ian Holm, a supporting role from Roy Scheider and the unfortunately forgotten Michael Zelniker. Everyone involved brings their A-Game, a triumphant blend of the weird and wacky with the expected severity and artistry that you would expect from such experienced cast members. Scheider especially manages to amaze with his few, bizarre scenes that litter the start and finish of the film. His inclusion is mesmerising, and further cements his status as one of the greats.
With the metamorphoses in Videodrome and The Fly, Cronenberg has always been one of the champions of practical effects, and they come to light in superb manner here, by far the best of his work thus far, simply due to the sheer mass of scenes we have showcasing these wild scenarios. We have typewriters turning into giant cockroaches, aliens galore with such incredible designs and useful plot points to them. Everything connects so well in Naked Lunch that it’s hard not to feel perplexed at how it all came together to create such a great foundation. Naked Lunch, then, should certainly be considered a film that delves into the darker corners of the mind. By far the film that highlights Cronenberg’s voice best, his unique style is undeniably unfiltered, and the results are absolutely astounding. A surreal and thoroughly enjoyable piece, one that manages to break the barriers of the thriller/mystery with more imagination, weirdness and invention than any film should reasonably contain – and it’s an adaptation of a so-called unfilmable novel from William S. Boroughs.