Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The subtitle of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson’s classic work of Gonzo Journalism, is “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” and that’s the key to appreciating both the book and Terry Gilliam’s astonishing film version. The surface reading of the “story” would be that of two guys wandering around Vegas getting loaded and having a variety of progressively insane misadventures. Its true subject, though, is the sea-to-shining-sea derangement of America, its uneasy mix of forbidding Puritanism and greedhead capitalism, its straight-arrows who seem weirder than the weirdos, the “normal” recreational activities so bizarre they render drug hallucinations redundant.

The great rebel Terry Gilliam is ideal for this material, and he approaches Fear and Loathing as a sort of extension of the odd little cut-out animations he used to do for Monty Python. This is his best work since Brazil, and very likely the most vivid and mesmerizing American comedy of the ’90s. (Typically, the reviews in America have been, well, savage.) Working with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, and shooting for the first time in Panavision (which intensifies his trademark wide-angle distortions), Gilliam crafts a beautiful/ugly visual poem, a jittery, deadpan exercise in hellish red and aqua blue and paranoid green — the American dream as peyote nightmare.

Johnny Depp immerses himself in the role of “Raoul Duke” (i.e., Thompson), a sportswriter who goes to Vegas to cover the Mint 400 (a desert race for motorcycles and dune buggies). Along for the ride is “Dr. Gonzo” (Benicio Del Toro), a wild Samoan attorney inspired by Thompson’s friend Oscar Acosta. Their rented red Chevy convertible is a drugstore on wheels — the movie could be retitled Apothecary Now. The men are always snorting or smoking one evil thing or another, stumbling around casinos while completely twisted on ether or acid. Oddly, sex doesn’t play much of a role, except for an artistic runaway waif (Christina Ricci) the attorney picks up. Duke is as asexual as the lizards he hallucinates.

Which could be part of the point. Fear and Loathing is about the ways American men sublimate sexual lust — through idiotic, punishing sports, or firearm worship, or fascism (Duke also — hilariously — covers a narc convention). Despite the occasional threats and knife-waving, our anti-heroes are as close as soldiers in a foxhole, and Depp and Del Toro bring out the best in each other. Del Toro, packing an added 40 pounds, does his most lucid and comprehensible work (amazing, considering the wacked-out loon he’s playing), and Depp doesn’t just imitate Thompson — he channels the man’s rubbery outlaw spirit. Funny and repulsive, obnoxious yet in some ways pitiable, Depp’s performance should kill, once and for all, whatever pretty-boy image he still has left.

Gilliam wisely uses Thompson’s writing as narration, and the script — which he cowrote with Tony Grisoni, reworking an early attempt by Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy) and Tod Davies — is scrupulously faithful to the book. Yet Gilliam doesn’t let Thompson off the hook — the movie isn’t just a jokey celebration of weirdness. In scenes like the one with Ellen Barkin as a waitress terrorized by the knife-wielding attorney, Gilliam measures the human cost of his heroes’ bad craziness. Those who complain that the film glorifies its protagonists just aren’t paying attention. Duke and his attorney fancy themselves wild outsiders, but they’re just as much a part of hellish America as the monsters they encounter. In fact, they’re more: living it up, trashing ritzy hotel rooms, getting away with everything short of murder, they embody the American dream in their own addled, squalid way — a nightmare of excess and consumption.

That’s the true horror and comedy of the book, and Gilliam gets every bit of it onto the screen. Thompson’s book has endured for 27 years, and not just because of its drug-induced strangeness: like William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, it uses hallucinatory states as a funhouse mirror on the sordid, ugly face of humanity. Gilliam’s film will likewise endure, and outlive the short-sighted critical bashing. Years from now, it will be reappraised as a misunderstood masterpiece. Well, this is one American critic who’s not waiting until years from now, if you catch my drift. 5

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