Home > Culture, Film, Literature, Reviews > Film Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Film Review: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998; Directed by Terry Gilliam)

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” So goes the memorable opening line of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo memoir on the early 1970s zeitgeist, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The phrasing is simultaneously specific and vague, straight-faced and descriptive while also evocative, symbolic, mythic. On the cusp of entering the desert, that arid, unforgiving space of existential questing and contemplation long before and well after Jesus Christ spent 40 days and nights there being tempted by Satan (and he wasn’t even looped on mescaline and ether, at least as far as we know), revelations of some kind (capitalized or otherwise) are foreshadowed. And the drugs, gifted by Thompson’s sentence with an agency, a menace, a power beyond that possessed by the helpless apes who dare to consume them, let alone one that they are capable of resisting or overcoming. All of Fear and Loathing, in its anti-narrative flow and bacchanalian scattershot inspiration, follows from this simple but potently charged sentence.

Terry Gilliam, more than any other filmmaker possibly could, gets what Thompson was after with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the resulting cinematic adaptation of the self-styled Doctor of Journalism’s unreliably phantasmagorical memoir of degenerative excess might well be one of the truest but also among the most imaginatively extrapolated page-to-screen translations in movie history. Like much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas blurs the line between reality and fantasy in an effort to destabilize an oppressive establishment. Unlike much of Gilliam’s oeuvre, the drug-fuelled apparitions observed by our vision-questing protagonists are not dreams but nightmares of the pharmaceutically-initiated sort. As per the Samuel Johnson quote that takes up the film’s first frame, Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo become beasts to rid themselves of the pain of being men. And America manufactures pain on an industrial scale.

Duke, played by a bald-pated Johnny Depp as an exploded, bow-legged, cigarette-holder-chomping caricature of Thompson (whom he dwelt with and studied for some time in preparation for the inspired role), rents a convertible and drives from Los Angeles to Vegas in 1971, ostensibly to cover a desert motorcycle race. Dr. Gonzo, a fleshy, wild-haired civil rights lawyer based on Chicano activist Oscar Zeta Acosta and embodied with an exhilarating, dangerous abandon and lack of vanity by Benicio Del Toro, accompanies Duke, helping him to consume their encyclopedic catalogue of psychotropic drugs and generally wreak antisocial mayhem around Sin City and its environs. Duke and Gonzo are rough sketches of Thompson’s ego and id, respectively, his relatively square, accredited word-slinging journalist persona and the unhinged werewolf that chased every high available to him. The wild and woolly exploits of his two halves gradually reveal a mirror-image madness in the character of an America squirming under the thumb of Richard Nixon and losing itself to a reckless hedonistic quest for self-fulfilment that never quite ends.

Gilliam’s film commences with an insane sense of dizzy momentum. Duke and Gonzo barrel through the desert in their red convertible, phantom-chased by hallucinated bats and weirded out by a wispy-haired hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire in a brief, terrified cameo appearance; a pre-stardom Cameron Diaz shows up later in a small role, too). They arrive at their Vegas hotel just as a hellacious acid trip kicks in for Duke: the carpets crawl up guests’ legs, the front desk agent (Gilliam fave Katherine Helmond) has moray eels swimming through her face, and a sojourn into the hotel bar features the patrons transforming into inebriated, blood-drenched, sex-mad reptiles (“Buy us some golf shoes, otherwise we’ll never get out of this place alive!” exclaims Duke with the clarion anti-logic of the drug-blitzed).

The subsequent ebb and flow of fragmentary plot, extended drug trips, and embarrassing social scenes might not be as “fun” as the opening surge on the open stretch of highway, strictly speaking. But Gilliam shows masterful, uncompromising control of his images (and his wonderful soundtrack, wall-to-wall period songs with no filler), and refuses to tone them down or make them easier to digest. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas becomes a difficult, queasy experience before too long, and Gilliam purposely arranges his visuals to cause maximum discomfort and disorientation. You may not enjoy it, exactly, but you cannot but admire the skill and the dedication to unsettling the viewer. The sick violet glow during an adrenal extract trip, Gonzo’s skin-crawling exploitation of young portraitist Lucy (Christina Ricci), and a final descent into complete madness (“You people voted for Hubert Humphrey, and you killed Jesus!”) that ends with Duke wading through a flooded hotel suite in hip-waiters and a dinosaurian tail with a tape recorder taped to his chest: this movie is an epic sensory experience, and often an unnerving one.

But then that’s Hunter S. Thompson, too: he troubles you even as he enlightens; or perhaps it’s the enlightenment itself that is so troubling. Terry Gilliam reduces the original novel to its constituent parts and rearranges them in his preferred form while allowing their nature to remain evident. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is that rarest of cinematic adaptations that represents the visions of both the source’s author and the film’s director with equal effectiveness and imagination. It’s also performing a key public service in demonstrating the effects of hallucinatory chemicals without requiring their actual consumption. I have never felt the slightest urge to attempt psychedelic drugs mainly because I’ve seen Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and therefore already know the things that they might make you see. What’s the point? This tremendous, utterly unique movie is the only drug I’ll ever need.

Categories: Culture, Film, Literature, Reviews

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