If David Cronenberg had always displayed a certain cool aura of intelligentsia beneath even the goriest of his surfaces, his one-two punch of The Fly and Dead Ringers demonstrated his mastery of the cerebral side of horror, as well as introduced a level of empathy and interest in humanity that was heretofore visible mainly in the margins of his work. Without sacrificing his capacity for gruesomeness, the director had punched into the mainstream and the realms of high art, and in that sense, perhaps it is not so surprising that he turned his attention to literary adaptation.

Admittedly, as works of canonical literature go, William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch is scarcely outside the director’s wheelhouse, and may in fact be closer to his sensibilities than his earlier pulp adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone. Burroughs’ novel, a deranged fever vision of drug psychosis, on its face presents a grotesque world of surreal terrors for Cronenberg to explore, though as ever the director confronts hellish visions with a deadpan calm that only enhances how unsettling they are.

The film follows its source text’s loose plot: exterminator William Lee (Peter Weller) becomes embroiled in a conspiracy possibly of his own addled mind, caked as it is in the very bug powder he uses for his day job. As he begins to dissociate from his addiction to the allegorical heroin, William accidentally kills his wife, Joan (Judy Davis), a fellow addict, then flees to a place called the Interzone where he writes daily reports on goings-on at the behest of some shadowy group who claims they wanted him to kill Joan. This setup is attended to with tidy speed, leaving the other two-thirds of the film to simply simmer with the increasingly lost, confused William as he seeks to hold his sanity together long enough to make sense of his world.

Cronenberg presents, at first, a sedate, if exaggerated realm of film noir. Dirty yellow light the hue of William’s bug powder filters through half-drawn shades in diners filled with beatniks philosophizing about art as William, dressed professionally, regularly reveals himself to be more debased and anti-establishment than any of them. Things tilt quickly off their axis, however; into this relatively normal setting comes images such as giant bugs who talk out of blowholes that looks suspiciously like reddened, puckering anuses. Giant, hunchbacked amphibious creatures suddenly materialize next to William at bars and speak as if they are normal people striking up a conversation. The cathartic release of self-expression is hilariously, horrendously realized when a typewriter begins to writhe and produce a giant phallic growth in a seduction scene before giving birth to a squirming, flesh-colored ribcage and bottom that flops around in ecstasy.

Burroughs’ novel is in many ways an act of confession; the author himself inadvertently killed his wife in the same William Tell shooting routine that Bill does when he shoots Joan, and it is filled with blatant homoeroticism that aired the author’s sexuality. Cronenberg foregrounds this material, making a paranoid anti-thriller less about whether there really is some sort of clandestine organization tormenting William than in watching a man come to grips with himself. Weller is not an actor known for his expressive range, but he understands this text as well as he understood RoboCop, using his flat, affectless delivery to magnify the satirical aspects of the film while also capturing a wounded, flattened humanity so incapable of being vented in normal terms that the grotesquerie that arises around him seems inevitable.

Cronenberg documents all of this with cold objectivity while still reflecting the outlandish visualizations of the protagonist/author’s repressed feelings exploding outward. This has the effect of making the film exist simultaneously in the first- and third-person, calling everything into question while still maintaining enough ironic distance to wring amusement out of, say, a junkie exterminator finding himself in Morocco fantasizing a Total Recall-esque hallucination of spies and cold warfare. It also lets Cronenberg subtly highlight the true meat of Burroughs’ book, that of the scattered and surreal prose and nonsense narrative masking a reckoning with the artistic process itself, specifically the circumstances that forged him as a writer. The director homes in on the subplot of William meeting a doppelgänger of Joan who ultimately becomes the victim of a repeat of the incident that killed his wife, forcing William to constantly relive the act that sent him into exile to churn out pages each day. For all the strange humor of the film, Naked Lunch perceives the melancholy and self-loathing within the novel, presenting a muse scenario so twisted that the author is forced to admit that he only learned to create by destroying.

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