Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter Weller, Judy Davis, Ian Holm, Julian Sands, Roy Scheider
Director:  David Cronenberg
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  115 Minutes
Release Date:  November 11, 2003

“Exterminate all rational thought.”

Film ***1/2

I’ve been a big fan of David Cronenberg for a long time, and as such, I cherish the films he makes that others seem to recoil in horror from.  Naked Lunch is a prime example.  What some see as grotesque and cumbersome, I see as the brilliant marriage of the words of William S. Burroughs and the visual style of Cronenberg.  While some view it as unclear and without focus, I find a certain subconscious sense of logic about it all that I get, but don’t really know how to explain.  It’s kind of like how I can walk around my apartment in pitch darkness without seeing anything.  Cronenberg’s flair for the bizarre equates to a kind of comfort zone for me.

Based largely on Burroughs’ book of the same title, but also drawing inspiration from another of his stories The Exterminator, as well as incidents in his actual life (mainly the death of his wife), with a good dose of Cronenberg’s own imagination thrown in, Naked Lunch is kind of a surreal take on film noir, where the characters don’t move about in shadows but rather wander through delusions of their own making.

William Lee (Weller, playing the fictional counterpart to Burroughs himself), is a one-time failed writer turned exterminator with a propensity towards drug use.  His wife Joan (Davis), like apparently many others around him, has discovered the bug powder he uses for his job makes for a great buzz.  “It’s a Kafka high,” she explains.  “You feel like a bug.”  Maybe if I’d had some of that back in college, Metamorphosis would have made more sense to me, but there it is…

As Lee becomes hooked on his own insecticide, it leads him treading precariously between two strange worlds:  the real one, where writers resembling Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac earnestly dissect their craft and in which he accidentally kills his own wife, and the “Interzone”, a drug induced hallucinatory place where machines become organic extensions of their users, giant bugs literally talk out of their asses, and where Lee is an agent, who was supposedly under orders to kill his wife as an enemy operative.  In his fantasy (nightmare?), he is writing reports on the activities of Interzone.  Apparently in real life, he’s writing Naked Lunch, which could be a masterpiece, if he somehow survives the birthing pains of creating it.

It’s in the dream world where the meat of Burroughs’ and Cronenberg’s visions are given free reign.  On one hand, we’re trapped with Lee in a place where we understand nothing is real, yet the unreal means more than the reality.  On one plane of existence, Lee is merely a rapidly burning out abuser of narcotics, but what he is in his delusions is decidedly more fascinating to both him and us.  Peter Weller was a good choice for the role; his dry baritone delivery not only invokes the real William S. Burroughs, but provides a kind of dark wit that lends a subtle but wonderfully edgy comic sense to the strange proceedings.

The cinema of Cronenberg is the cinema of the grotesque; it’s a place where human frailties, needs and appetites are often graphically depicted in symbolic images that are equally repulsive and fascinating.  I don’t think it’s a vision that has ever been so well served as with Naked Lunch, which essentially uses drug hallucinations as a means to convey the pains, conflicts and sometimes out-and-out irrationality of the creative process.  Burroughs himself apparently saw no distinction between the creator and the created.  In fact, he lent his philosophical approval to Cronenberg’s idea of combining other works and elements of his real life into the film of Naked Lunch.  While many celebrated figures try to keep their works and lives separate, to Burroughs, there were all part of a personal continuum.

While this is a film I love, as with most Cronenberg movies, I have to hesitate giving it a full out recommendation.  For those with adventurous tastes in either literature or cinema, this represents a wonderful blend of genius and insanity.  For others, it will be seen just as a horrid mess.  But while some may dismiss Naked Lunch, they won’t soon shake it from their minds.

Video ***

Criterion did a respectable job with this anamorphic transfer.  The opening titles with their clashing color patterns looks exceptional on DVD.  There is a distinct somewhat muted look to the picture; while colorful, the images are still a bit on the shady side, invoking a noir feel and removing an absolute sense of realism from the film.  There’s a touch of grain here and there, and some softness, but these are mostly artistic choices.  A purely clean visual rendering would have robbed the movie of some of its visual flair.

Audio ***

The 2 channel surround mix is better than most of it’s kind in that it invokes the rear stage frequently to keep the experience unsettling and surreal.  Dynamic range is fair, dialogue is always clean and clear, and the balance and blend of audio effects are striking and supportive.

Features ****

Criterion has plenty to offer with this double disc set, starting with a newly recorded commentary track featuring David Cronenberg and Peter Weller (recorded separately but edited together smoothly), and it’s one of the year’s best.  Both men are intelligent and articulate, and have plenty to say about the film, Burroughs, the literary aspects of the picture, and much more.  Students of film and print will find plenty of good information here.

Disc Two features everything else, and the running theme seems to be “how the heck did this book ever make it to the screen?”.  That question is addressed in the 1991 TV documentary Naked Making Lunch, which features an in depth approach to answering the query.  There is also a shorter production featurette, a trailer, two TV spots, and a montage of B roll footage.  Especially cool is a collection of excerpts of William S. Burroughs reading from his own novel.  Three galleries including photos, special effects shots, and pics of Burroughs by Allen Ginsberg are also included.

The DVD booklet is also a treat, featuring essays by critic Janet Maslin, documentary maker Chris Rodley, Gary Indiana, and a piece by Burroughs himself.


For those who want to escape the mainstream, Naked Lunch on DVD is a U-turn from the ordinary.  The combination of William S. Burroughs and David Cronenberg produced a weird and original masterpiece that will inspire some and repel others.  Criterion’s excellent treatment makes Naked Lunch a savory banquet for the adventurous filmgoer.