Remember Gore Verbinksi’s kiddie western, Rango (2011)? Did it remind you of anything? The parched, empty Mojave Desert, the alarmingly bright and out-of-place Hawaiian shirt, and then the words “starring Johnny Depp.” Clearly we were reliving one of the classic drug trips…but where was the TarGard Permanent Filter System cigarette holder, green translucent visor, and hallucinatory manta rays?
The sixties are dead and the seventies don’t look like they’ll be near as much fun, echoes the wistful message of cult favorite Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Terry Gilliam (one of my personal favorite directors) might have been the ideal choice to film this unfilmable story by Hunter S. Thompson (one of my personal favorite writers). If you haven’t read the book (first published in novel form in 1972), correct this immediately, but if you have read it you would know just how impossible it seems to put on film. Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a fractured quasi-autobiographical account of a drug-addled excursion to casino central. It is also a lament for the loss of the innocence and purity of the sixties counterculture while simultaneously an ironic discovery of how perverted and hollow the American Dream had become. There are isolated events and meandering amusing tales woven throughout the story, but nothing really strikes one as being particularly cinematic. The only real feature uniting the book’s passages are the two main characters—Raoul Duke (aka Thompson) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Acosta).
That the movie works at all is an incredible accomplishment. The ink smeared intro evokes the instantly recognizable illustrative work of frequent Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. Johnny Depp delivers a manic, cartoonish performance that might just be his most enjoyable to watch. His portrayal of Thompson is a hilarious caricature of the real person. Benicio Del Toro also gives a very dynamic and twisted performance as the unsavory, unpredictable “Samoan” attorney. Nicola Pecorini’s constantly tilting camera-work and wild color and light shifts also feeds the delirious experience very well. The classic song choices are perfectly placed too. The production does a marvelous job of recreating the demented, gaudy aura of a 1971 Las Vegas. Director Terry Gilliam’s bold visual style (from Time Bandits to Twelve Monkeys) made him an excellent choice to capture Thompson’s energy and anarchy.
All of these things are fine inclusions to a strange project, but perhaps the most important element is that virtually every line of dialogue is ripped directly from Thompson’s typewriter. One thing that sometimes bothers me is that film adaptations of books I love often fail to capture the voice of the source material. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas uses the original words the whole way, which was the best choice because what makes Hunter S. Thompson so great is not always what he is writing about, but how he describes things. In adapting the language of the original Gonzo journalist, one has to use the words.
Directors like Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) and Oliver Stone (Nixon) said it couldn’t be done. And after seeing Gilliam’s take, some critics said it had remained undone. It may be a semi-lucid muddle, but I’d still call it a triumph. The film feels like a wild drug trip, complete with its highs and lows, but always anchored by the perceptive and dogged mumblings of our Virgil-like guide in the form of Thompson’s words ejaculating from Depp’s mouth. Fear and Loathing succeeds in being a cinematic representation of a grouping of abstract ideas. It’s a story that probes the mind rather than pluck the heartstrings. These guys are too concerned with making it out of this withering, neon-lit trap alive to share a fount of human emotion. They take note of their surroundings; imagine them to be altered; forget their surroundings; abuse their surroundings; navigate impossible obstacles and impositions all in the name of journalism; and then take note again.
Is the movie about drug use? Many of its followers would say yes, but it is so much more than that. To me it is about writing and about somehow counting one’s losses and recovering. It is about how you cannot go back to the same place twice and expect it to be unchanged. If the film seems like a wreck, just remember that one of the themes is salvaging the pieces. There be much fear and loathing in this litany of a lost ideal.
Apart from all the Thompson documentaries, there were a few other cinematic incarnations. Johnny Depp played Thompson again in 2011 in The Rum Diary and before that Bill Murray played Thompson in Where the Buffalo Roam (1980).
Whitnail and I director Bruce Robinson’s Rum Diary movie suffers from being a little boring in comparison with Gilliam’s insanity, but it’s not that bad actually. I’d say it was unfairly maligned. It’s a gentle examination of early Thompson and a decent adaptation of the source material. I actually defend The Rum Diary. It never really finds a proper momentum and it’s not the tropical booze-binge the marketing insinuated, but it has great atmosphere and some fun characters. Michael Rispoli, Giovanni Ribisi, and Richard Jenkins give memorable performances as well. As an American expat living abroad myself, I find myself strangely drawn to the characters’ plights of living from delayed paycheck to delayed paycheck at a failing business in a foreign land…and the looming threat of American industrial encroachment peaking over the horizon. It’s no Fear and Loathing, but it’s not trying to be.
Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam suffers too from being a little tepid and unfocused. Buffalo Roam is kinda like Occupy Wallstreet, you can tell it feels strongly about something but you’re not quite sure how it plans to achieve anything or where it’s ultimately heading…maybe that’s the perfect Thompson movie then? That being said, it’s not a total waste as there are some moments of snarky wit and Bill Murray actually gives a pretty solid performance as Thompson. Peter Boyle is also pretty good as Dr. Gonzo.
Perhaps it makes no sense to harp on a film that has become a thriving cult classic. Perhaps Rango did not intend to pay homage either…but wait! Who’s that CG gentleman in the speeding red shark? Why, I do declare! Hunter S. Thompson has a cameo in Rango. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a writer’s paradise and the movie (and Ed Wood) are the main reasons I still pay attention to Johnny Depp. Fans of Thompson shouldn’t be disappointed, and newcomers might be turned off, but them’s the chances ya take with a strong literary voice.
Top 10 Reasons to See Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
1. It contains what I hesitate-not to dub Johnny Depp’s best performance.
2. The incessant drug use is the perfect excuse for Gilliam to go crazy.
3. Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Mark Harmon, Verne Troyer, Ellen Barkin, Michael Jeter, Katherine Helmond, Penn Gillette, Christopher Meloni, and even Hunter S. Thompson himself have cameos. What fun.
4. Is it better than the book? Not a chance, but I’d rank it alongside Watership Down (1978) and The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (1973-1974) and a bunch of other great and worthy literary adaptations.
5. In keeping all the dialogue the same it basically functions as an audio book, but with Gilliam pictures!
6. You wanna get anxious? This film will make ya anxious. It’s got some scenes that’ll make ya anxious.
7. It manages to find somberness and sobriety amidst its hallucinatory mayhem.
8. Despite some grotesqueries it maintains a constant absurd sense of humor.
9. It’s a great gateway drug into the worlds of both Terry Gilliam and Hunter S. Thompson.
10. You will understand why The Rum Diary (2011) could never live up to it.
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 11, 2011