William S. Burroughs’ notorious, and notoriously unfilmable, novel Naked Lunch has landed in the right hands. Stretching himself with each new work, David Cronenberg has come up with a fascinating, demanding, mordantly funny picture.
A cult novel since its publication in 1959, Burroughs’ non-narrative novel represented the literary equivalent of a Heironymous Bosch painting, a profane, outrageous explosion of riffs dominated by drugs, gay sex and a surreal evocation of society’s control mechanisms.
At the center of this chilly emotional spiral is William Lee (Burroughs’ alter ego and early pseudonym), an insect exterminator in New York City circa 1953. Lee (Peter Weller) lives in quiet squalor with his wife (Judy Davis) until, on a bug drug high, he accidently shoots her while playing William Tell.
Breaking into a hallucinatory state, Lee escapes to the realm of Interzone, an imaginatively demented rendition of Tangier heavily populated by artist addicts, homosexuals and secret agents where he is able to begin writing, even if what he is writing are ‘reports’ over which he seems to have no actual control.
Weller is a superb Burroughs stand-in, strongly holding centerscreen while not actually doing much. Supporting cast is diverse and outstanding. Dissuaded from actually shooting in Tangier by the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War, Cronenberg’s team has memorably created an artificial world almost entirely on stages.