Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) Review

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Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

~Review by Grawlix (December 2017)
You know how, when you’re watching a movie, particularly an action movie, and the hero gets drugged or poisoned? And suddenly the sound gets all warbly and muffled, and the DP starts going nuts with the odd lenses and angles, and maybe there’s some subtle digital effects, all designed to convey the character’s sense of disorientation. Well, imagine an entire movie of that. Two hours of non-stop sensory disjunction where each scene is seemingly trying to one-up the previous one for sheer, mind-bending strangeness. This is the experience of watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Set in 1971, which, for American Youth culture, is the Sunday Morning to the Saturday Night of 1969’s Summer of Love, Fear and Loathing tells the story of journalist Raoul Duke and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo. Duke is assigned to cover an off-road motorcycle race across the desert, and thence to a District Attorney’s conference. These he dutifully attends with Gonzo in tow. This may not sound like the recipe for much drama on its own, but Duke and Gonzo manufacture all they can handle (and then some) by their resolution to spend as much of the time as possible in semi-conscious, chemically induced fugue states. Though the pair clearly have extensive experience with illicit substances, their concept of moderation has long since been abandoned. As mentioned in an early voice over “ …once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” and by the time the events of the film commence, our heroes have amassed a drug collection that could momentarily stun Keith Richards. This is put to extensive, and perpetual, use as they slur and stumble their way from place to place, crisis to self-inflicted crisis, usually with one barely lucid and the other barely conscious. Along the way hotel rooms are trashed, vehicles are wrecked, bills are skipped out on, and journalistic assignments are ignored. Arguably minds are opened and consciousness is expanded as well, but that’s more of a question for which one’s individual mileage may vary (wildly). It’s probably more accurate to say that windows to nearly unspeakable existential horrors are opened, usually in such a manner that they can’t be closed quickly enough again. And yet, somehow, both men manage to land on their feet, dazed, exhausted, and impatient to restart the nightmare cycle anew.

Based on the autobiographical novel by Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing is less of a story and more of a succession of episodes, composed of equal parts fascination and revulsion. It was long considered unfilmable, but director Terry Gilliam has built an entire career out of realizing unfilmable concepts with near inconceivable visuals, and Fear and Loathing may well be his magnum opus. With a subject that puts nothing off limits, Gilliam is free to bring virtually every trick available to late 90’s cinematography to bear on the film. From the strange angles, skewed camera movement and oversaturated colors and filters, to practical effects work of masks, make up, and puppetry, to the computer effects, both crass and understated, the movie is an absolute kaleidoscope of visual chaos. And what’s amazing is that, since everything is supposed to be a product of hallucinatory unreality anyway, the effects are in no way diminished by the age of the techniques.

Added to this is the fact that the movie takes place in Las Vegas, which is already the closest America has to a funhouse mirror of itself. Even the ‘normal’ scenes are awash in blaring sound and color with odd setpieces like a carousel-style rotating bar or a raucous carnival midway adding fuel to the already overstimulated festivities. That Vegas should be the baseline for what passes for normality in the story is a stroke of brilliance that’s probably more of a credit to the original novel, but Gilliam still takes full advantage of it in the film. And it’s all set against a booming cacophony of sixties counter-cultural stoner rock and peppy showtunes. The stimulation comes from all directions in Fear and Loathing, and once you’re strapped in there’s no let up and no escape.  

Raoul Duke, who was Thompson’s own avatar in the original story, is played by Johnny Depp. Depp is in full chameleon mode here, rendered almost unrecognizable by a bald head and hideous 70’s fashions. Of the two lead characters, he seems to be the more grounded, though neither one is exactly a model of restraint. Duke also narrates and provides occasional editorial interjections, all in a limpid, almost  scholarly documentary style. This stands in sharp contrast to the madness he witnesses and in which he freely partakes, but it does make a certain amount of sense being that he’s supposed to be a reasonably well-known journalist and ostensibly on the job during the events of the film. Watching his frequent flights of lunacy here, you can easily see where Captain Jack Sparrow came from a few years later.

Dr. Gonzo is played by Benicio Del Toro, amusingly about 30 pounds heavier than usual. Del Toro is definitely a versatile actor, but I’ve never seen him in a part so unhinged as this. We never see him doing anything resembling legal work (though, to be fair, Duke rarely engages in anything remotely resembling journalism) so any reason for his character even being in the story beyond that of enabler and co-conspirator is something of a mystery, though, I suppose in context, those latter two reasons are enough. Described as “too weird to live, and too rare to die”, Gonzo seemingly has no impulse control and at-best varying inhibitions and his radical unpredictability ends up being what drives most of the action in the film.

With no other major characters to speak of (Duke and Gonzo’s greatest and most persistent enemies are themselves) the movie is chock full of recognizable cameos. Tobey Maguire plays a hitchhiker who arouses Duke’s paranoia. Cameron Diaz is a reporter who briefly catches his eye. Gary Busey plays a cop who chases him down for speeding. Christina Ricci plays a religious artist who briefly gets involved with the pair. Verne Troyer is a waiter, Harry Dean Stanton plays a judge, Penn Jillette, a carnival barker, Flea, a musician. And others more, besides. Even Hunter S. Thompson himself puts in an appearance. Nearly all of these are blink-and-you-miss them fast. Most get a line or two at most and few appear in more than one scene. One gets the sense that most of those that appear jumped at the chance to be part of history, taking a role in a project that, for so long, was regarded as impossible to make. But the sheer volume of cameos serves the story too, with the constant procession of recognizable faces only adding to the dizzying collage.

I will admit that I am often conflicted about how much of a movie’s story to reveal without giving too much away, but
Fear and Loathing provided something of a respite from those concerns as there is little in the way of actual story to spoil. Two dudes get high as hell and go absolutely bonkers, leaving destruction and discord in their wake. There is some business about pursuit of the American Dream; about how that particular rainbow conspicuously lacked a pot of gold at the end, and the subsequent void that the disaffected dreamers are possibly attempting to fill. That perhaps the drugs, and the dramatic over-stimulation they provide, are meant to represent a flailing attempt to recapture such noble undertakings, the illusion of which having been so dramatically shattered by the debacle of the Vietnam War and the vast social upheaval that surrounded it. That’s there if you want it. But the movie’s (and by extension, the book’s) crowning instance is a monologue about being caught in a moment. About how you know you’re witnessing something singular and amazing, even if you struggle to define it, describe it, or understand it. Such a sentiment is as apt as any for the movie itself, its creation, and, indeed, its viewing.

Final Score: A

Of all the movies I’ve reviewed thus far,
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has probably been the hardest to quantify. There’s virtually no narrative structure, in the strictest sense of the word. The heroes are also often the villains, and most of the action has no logical flow, which is clearly the point. As such, Fear and Loathing is not so much watched as it is experienced, and you either appreciate it on its own merits or you don’t. I’m giving it an ‘A’ because there’s almost nothing else like it out there. Because as a technical and artistic exercise, it’s a triumph. And because it was successfully adapted from a source that was widely considered unadaptable. But there’s no denying that it’s not the most accessible piece of filmmaking, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stoner crowd has built it up to be vastly more than it might otherwise seem to be. It’s an art film, and as I’ve said before, you probably know whether it’s for you or not.


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