Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Title: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, , Tobey Maguire, Christina Ricci, Gary Busey, Ellen Barkin, Cameron Diaz, Flea


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in one of these movies that you either “get” and love, or you don’t get and hate. I fall under the category of those who love it to death. I don’t know what it is that attracts me towards Hunter S. Thompson’s own brand of ‘Gonzo Journalism’ I think there’s something that feels so very genuine about his writing style, it just feels like he was streaming his thoughts straight onto his typewriter. The main idea behind Thompson’s ‘Gonzo Journalism’ was to experience things first hand, to immerse himself and experience whatever it was he had to write about and then write about it. He didn’t just research and write. He lived, he experienced, and he dove head first into the world he was writing about. With ‘Gonzo Journalism’ you almost feel as if Hunter was walking around with his typewriter, typing things down as they happened. For example, he lived with the motorcycle gang known as ‘The Hells Angels’ for a year. He later wrote the book based on his experiences called Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of The Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

Hunter S. Thompson and the real Dr. Gonzo Oscar Zeta Acosta

He used his ‘Gonzo Journalism’ style for writing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream. The main purpose of his explorations was to do a “gross, physical salute to the fantastical possibilities of life in this country”; and for that, he aimed his guns at Las Vegas, the epicenter of greed, lust and decadence in America. The result was a novel that captured the madness of what American was like post 60’s early 70’s during the Nixon era, during the Vietnam War, when all anybody ever wanted was for said war to be over. As a result of the madness the country was living in during those days, many turned to drugs to forget, to wipe their minds clean of the craziness that was going on in their country. Thompson’s novel perfectly captures this sub culture that surfaced during that time and explores what it was like to live during those chaotic days.

The film presents us with two very unique individuals: Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. These two characters are the alternate personas of Hunter S. Thompson and his real life partner  in crime and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta respectively. Together they take a trip towards Las Vegas so that Raoul Duke can write an article for Sports Illustrated Magazine on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. But in reality, Raoul and Dr. Gonzo couldn’t care less about the Mint 400. What Raoul and Dr. Gonzo are really after is finding “the heart of the American Dream”; that and experimenting with every single type of mind altering drug known to man. Will they every find The American Dream? Will they survive their drug filled journey alive?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was not an easy project to get made. Let’s face it; this isn’t the kind of project that Hollywood studios are jumping to make. It’s not a commercial film at all, in fact, it’s quite the opposite. The film is an observation of an era; it attempted (successfully) to capture an era that was filled with revolt and general dissatisfaction with the way things were being done in America. On top of that, the films protagonists are drugged out of their minds through out the whole thing. Many filmmakers where at one point attached to direct this one, amongst them Martin Scorcese and Oliver Stone. For whatever reason they never got to direct the film. I have to be honest, I would have loved to see Oliver Stone’s version of Fear and Loathing, but ultimately, the film fell on the hands of Terry Gilliam, in many ways the perfect director to get this film made. Aside from the fact that many of Gilliam’s films have always had a subversive angle to them (Brazil (1984) is a great example of this) he also has that kinetic kind of crazy style of filmmaking. Hyperkinetic in nature, Gilliam’s camera movements and storytelling style have always felt to me like they come from a hyperactive child, always looking for something interesting, always walking away from boredom. This is a style of filmmaking that gels perfectly with Hunter S. Thompson equally scattershot, stream of consciousness style of writing. So Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (the film) is the perfect marriage of two like minded individuals; Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam.

Gilliam directs Depp

But with the wrong kind of actors, this film could have fallen apart. This project needed actors that would go all the way, that wouldn’t be afraid to get down and dirty; actors that would willingly explore the darker side of the human experience. Johnny Depp has always been a champion of Hunter S. Thompson’s work and actually still is to this very day, yet another Hunter S. Thompson film has been produced by him called The Rum Diary (2011), it’s playing in theaters as I type this. How gung-ho was Depp about getting Fear and Loathing made? Well, he lived with Thompson for four months, learning his movements and mannerisms, learning how the man thought and talked. A friendship blossomed from this experience between actor and writer that lasted long after the film was made. So much so, that it was Depp who fulfilled Thompson’s last wishes of having his ashes fired out of a cannon after his death! So Depp’s dedication towards this film (and getting Hunter S. Thompson’s name out there to the world) was always there from the beginning and it shines through in his performance. Del Toro wasn’t always a fan of Thompson’s work, but he’d heard of it. Still, his dedication on this performance is obvious. I’m a huge fan of Benicio’s. Aside from the fact that he is Puerto Rican (as am I) the guy is simply put, an awesome actor. Ever seen him in 21 Grams (2003)? Wow, you need to. And if you ever have a chance of seeing him in Fear and Loathing, well, you’re going to see one his most honest and bravest performances ever.

One of the best things about this film is its comedy, I mean, if you are a fan of that sarcastic, acid style of comedy, this one is a keeper. One scene has Dr. Gonzo about to pour some cocaine on top of a suit case, and suddenly a gust of wind knocks the salt shaker from his hand and the cocaine blows into the wind and he says “Did you see what God just did to us man?” with this Mexican sort of accent and Raoul answers him: “That wasn’t God! That was you! You’re a fucking narcotics agent! I knew it!” That type of comedy knocks me over! Speaking of lines from this movie, they are highly quotable! My favorite one is: “You took too much man, you took too much!” And everybody on this movie is freaking wired, I mean, everybody does their best to act all crazy and funny, even people with a short cameo will make you laugh. It seems it was a requirement in order to be on this movie.

Visually speaking the film takes advantage of filming in Las Vegas, and all the lights and the fakeness that comes with it. Most of the film takes place inside of hotel bars, casinos, hotel rooms, out on the streets of Las Vegas and in the dessert. There’s some beautiful cinematography on this one. I would rate this film amongst Gilliam’s best, no doubts. This film is the closest you’ll ever feel to using drugs, without using them. Other films have done this extremely well for example Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009) is one of the finest examples of this (and a total visual trip of a film) but that one is very dramatic and serious, Fear and Loathing explores the same themes, but with a biting sense of humor. Final words on this one? The film explores the insanity, the desperation, the madness that comes from drug abuse. It does not glamorize drug use one bit; it tells it like it is. And on top of all that, the film analyzes why America chose to indulge in so much drug abuse during the 60’s and 70’s. Why does a nation have to resort to ignoring themselves through drug abuse? What was going on in the world at the time and how can that be avoided? Can it be avoided or are we headed towards a new similar drug era of our own? Will this generation ever know revolt? Today’s generation reminds me of a David Bowie song called ‘Sons of the Silent Age’, while the 60’s and 70’s were filled with rebellion and revolt, today’s generation seems contempt to just sit back and let the chips fall where they may. Fear and Loathing in The Modern World in deed.

Rating: 5 out of 5       



Unknown said...

Great film, hands down. I never thought anyone would be able to do HST's book justice but Gilliam and co. NAILED it. Amazing stuff.

I always felt that the first third of SALVADOR as Stone's take on FEAR & LOATHING with James Woods and James Belushi having a bit of Raoul Duke/Dr. Gonzo vibe/kind of relationship. I'd love to Stone's take on HST... maybe HELL'S ANGELS? or FEAR & LOATHING ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL '72? That would be very interesting!

Anyways, loved your observations on this gem of a film. It's a movie I pull out and watch every so often and always enjoy. It has aged very well.

Direct to Video Connoisseur said...

Love this movie, and love HST's stuff-- in college it was almost all I read-- and I echo JD's comments that this film does a great job adapting a book that doesn't seem easy to adapt.

Franco Macabro said...

Agree, Gilliam and Co. did a great job adapting this novel to the screen, I just got through reading the novel and it is almost a shot for shot deal, I mean, with the exception of one or two scenes, the movie IS the book, which is of course a rare thing. For example THE RUM DIARY (but more no that on my review for THE RUM DIARY, which should be up probably today.

I totally agree with you about the beginning of SALVADOR, I got a vibe like that too, and aside from Gilliam, Stone would have been the only other director GONZO enough to do a FEAR AND LOATHING film. I wouldnt mind seeing a HELL'S ANGELS film by Stone, but Stone hasnt been the same in a while, he's kind of lost his edge if you ask me. With feature lenght films anyways, his documentaries still rock.

@Direct to Video Connoisseur: Yup, this is one of those books that many thought impossible to bring to the silver screen, same as Naked Lunch...but there's always some crazy like minded director who can pull it off...and in this case, thank god it was Terry Gilliam, he was perfect for the job.


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