"Wait! We can't stop here! This is Bat Country!" - The critical Fear and Loathing for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter S. Thompson, the infamous creator of Gonzo journalism, recently committed suicide. He and collaborator Ralph Steadman had once discussed a suitable monument to his death as far back as 1977 during the filming of an Arena programme. The planned monument would consist of many 100ft upright stainless steel tubes all gathered into the iconic two-thumbed "fist of Gonzo". The fist would contain a cannon to fire Thompson's ashes out onto his estate. It is said that Thompson's son and Johnny Depp are working on making this fitting tribute a reality. Failing that, a similarly explosive testament to his strange genius is available on DVD in the shape of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And besides the only other previous Thompson adaptation, Where the Buffalo Roam, enraged the author so much he threatened to shoot Bill Murray on sight. Characteristically, the two later became great friends.
"There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die." - Raoul Duke, watching "Dr. Gonzo" leave Las Vegas
This backhanded compliment is strangely also a near-perfect analysis of Terry Gilliam's excellent, demented adaptation Thompson's seminal book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Critics, who woefully misunderstood its utterly unique finer points, almost universally mauled the film. It does not sit easily in either the Hollywood or Independent camps - Gilliam himself believes Fear and Loathing was "buried" on release. Films of its startling imagination are simply too rare to die.
Perhaps the main reason for the critical dislike levelled at Gilliam's adaptation (aside from the huge drug intake and the subsequent lack of moralising) is it really requires multiple viewings (like the best films) before the nuances of the two frantic lead performances become truly apparent. The famous critic Roger Ebert listlessly complained that the protagonists are "stoned beyond comprehension, to the point where most of their dialog could be paraphrased as "eh?"" He seems to have totally ignored the fact that the act of such simplistic paraphrasing is woefully inadequate to report the actual tone of performance, its inflections, timing and context. He is also very wrong: Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro supply the audience with wonderful caricatures of Raoul Duke (Thompson's alter-ego) and his cohort Dr. Gonzo (Thompson's friend Oscar Zeta Acosta). After a few minutes though something clicks - your brain waves become in tune with Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro's twitchy, over-the-top performances. Suddenly you can understand the twisted language ("Dogs fucked the Pope. No Fault of mine") and worryingly it all makes a surreal kind of sense.
The film is really held together by one of two things. Firstly by the sheer iconoclastic bombast of Depp's guttural delivery of the narration, taking the prime cuts of Thompson's savage prose, "Panic. It crept up my spine like first rising vibes of an acid frenzy.Here I was, alone in Las Vegas. Completely twisted on drugs, no cash, no story for the magazine, and top of everything else I had a gigantic goddamn hotel bill to deal with."
The second is the strange dynamic feeding the coupling of Depp and Del Toro. This seemingly rabid partnership between the two actors, at once laughing hysterically then at each other's throats, is in truth surprisingly subtle in its way. In every one of the scenes of mayhem they seem inexorably linked - both marching to the beat of their very own drum. For instance the hilarious scene when they both, in the depths of an ether binge, haplessly stumble through the Circus Circus Casino turnstiles like a "village drunkard in some early Irish novel". It approaches at times perhaps the nearest modern cinema has come to reaching the heady heights of Laurel and Hardy, for both duos mannerisms certainly reward multiple-viewing.
Depp expertly delivers the quintessential counter-culture anti-hero Raoul Duke, expertly taking on the tics and gestures of Thompson (he spent four months with the Good Doctor at his fortified compound shooting guns and making bombs). His movements are characteristically twitchy and flamboyantly jerky throughout; when simply placing a bet on the Strip, or attacking imaginary bats with a fly swatter. The iconic cigarette holder is permanently clenched in his mouth, and is used to great comedic effect, highlighting his reactions while twisted on any number of drugs. The whole crafted energetic display is sustained throughout, and to level that would make any silent-era actor proud.
A great deal has been written about Benicio Del Toro's Oscar award winning roles in films such as Traffic and 24 Grams, but his largely discarded work in Fear and Loathing is simply outstanding. He manages to portray completely different moods in the guise of the huge "Samoan"; from incredibly intense, anger and drug filled scenes (incoherently demanding Duke electrocute him in the bath when "White Rabbit" peaks); to forceful but calm when he hilariously, repeatedly and assuredly states "As your Attorney I advise you to." "rent a very fast car with no top".
The biggest mistake any critic has made regarding Fear and Loathing is to simply dismiss Gilliam's direction as aimless, and the film as incoherent. Again Ebert complains that it is a "horrible mess of a movie, without shape, trajectory or purpose." Dan Fainaru simply missed the point when he stated, "You can expect and tolerate incoherence from a 25-year-old director, but you demand a man of Terry Gilliam's age to have a more sophisticated command of a film." The film's incoherence certainly does not stem from directorial aimlessness (the opposite is true), but from the fragmented and often confusing source text. It could not and should not have been any other way. The superb cinematography of Nicola Pecorini adds to this effect, equally delighting, disorientating and worrying the audience (depending on the mood/drug of the duo). And as for questioning Gilliam's sophistication critics should only have to examine the obvious depth and thought behind the production design used to create the garish chaos that surrounds the audience. Also anyone who has seen the excellent documentary, The Hamster Factor , on the making of Twelve Monkeys, can attest that absolutely everything on a Gilliam film appears on screen by design.
The film, while often laugh out loud, is very dark in actual tone and subject, especially so after a second viewing. It depicts the confusion and degradation Duke and Gonzo sink to as they search for the American dream (including, in of all places, the Bazooko Circus Casino while in the depths of an ether binge). What most appalled Mike Clark of " USA Today" seemed to be a relatively tame "flying upchuck scene". Exactly what did he expect from a film featuring the consumption of LSD, weed, Coke, and Mescaline? He also complains that the film "offers only a short hand context" of events in American history. Like many critics he seemingly wanted his hand held through the film, to be told the context rather than be shown it. Throughout the film clever visual references are made to the Nixon blues and on going debacle of the Vietnam war, giving a real sense of time's political despair. At the near the close of Fear and Loathing a scene in off-strip diner firmly contextualises the post sixties political, social and drug culture low. This often-bemoaned scene has Duke disinterestedly reading his newspaper while Gonzo intimidates the waitress and then ominously wields a hunting knife. Many critics believed the film in such moments was showing how vile two humans could be simply for the sake of it. This is not the case; the fact Duke does not even see (or care) what is happening around him is exactly what makes the scene so troubling.
The film should not be considered a failure if only because it comes as close as a film could to visualising Hunter S. Thompson's brilliantly perverse ramblings on the death of the American dream. Admittedly there are noticeable emissions, but this is a necessary evil in adaptation, and does not damage the film greatly. In fact the film keeps the source material remarkably intact, with huge swathes becoming brilliant monologues through Depp's guttural Thompson impression. Take the moment when Duke stares at the unfortunate hitchhiker via the rear view mirror, and in the grips of paranoia his voice over rants, "Because it goes without saying we can't cut him lose. He'd report us at once to some kind of outback, Nazi law enforcement agency and they'd run us down like dogs. [The speech slowly merges into out-loud speech by gradually over-lapping with his on screen mumbling] Jesus! Did I say that or just think it." It is a fine example of how cinema, when the director makes use of his tools, can enrich the source text . Tobey Maguire, as said large-skulled hitchhiker, is also remarkably in sync with Ralph Steadman's original demented illustrations, right down to the bulbous head and the twisted Mickey Mouse T-shirt. This concisely represents the production's stunning eye for detail, as envisioned throughout the trashed hotel rooms and Vegas nightspots.
Unusually for Gilliam (see Brazil), Fear and Loathing sees the director make fantastic use of soundtrack from the very start. The unexpectedly haunting lines from "My favourite things" play over black and white footage of a helicopter spraying tear gas, then Vietnam protestors before the glistening blood of the title appears. A powerful and yet witty introduction to the film's context, made all the richer by the choice of music.
Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sticks uncompromisingly to its own twisted sense of humour and logic, neither replacing Thompson's original, nor betraying it. It is one of the most vivid, inventive and funny subjective depictions of drug taking high and lows on film. And as Alexander Walker of the " Evening Standard" quotes in his positive review, the film is indeed "like Disneyland designed by Dante".