Sometimes I think that people wish that they lived in a cartoon. Why else would this movie exist?
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream is a book by infamous self-insert fan-fiction writer/suicide victim Hunter S. Thompson. In it, two dangerously irresponsible people use a journalistic assignment in Vegas as an excuse for a mad bender. Raoul Duke (Thompson’s alter ego), and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo get tanked on beer, barbs, and ether, and then forgo their assignment completely so they can terrorize the gamblers, policemen, and casino slaves they encounter. The two men are remorseless addicts and compulsive liars, and their adventures are mostly irrational and aimless. They trash hotel rooms and skip out on bills. They frighten hitchhikers and move on girls of many ages. Sprinkled amongst the roguery are poetic eulogies for the 1960s counter-culture. I think the purpose of these is to add some thematic weight to the work, but the whole thing remains a racing, meandering mess. I guess it’s fascinating in a James Joyce-ian kind of way, though I’m not much of a Joyce fan. Maybe the problem is that I didn’t live in the book’s time. I don’t know. What did grab me about it, though, were its contrasts in ugliness: the reader must decide whether the heroes’ debauchery is really any worse than sanctioned sociopathy.
Anyway, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the film, is the Terry Gilliam interpretation of the work, and while it remains an exercise in discomfort, its presentation is so comical that it often plays like some twisted Warner Bros. cartoon. It’s hard to know what to make of it, but the more I watch it, the more I like it.
The casting is brilliant. Johnny Depp plays Raoul Duke with the inebriated sashay he later used for his Jack Sparrow character. He wiggles and wobbles and won’t hold still, and his lines are a stew of unintelligible mumbles. The whole act must look ridiculous to those who haven’t seen or heard the person that Depp’s imitating. Hunter S. Thompson was indeed a hyper man who couldn’t stop talking, gesturing, or thinking, and Depp spent weeks alongside him in order to assume and develop his mannerisms. It’s an excellent impression, but the Duke we see in the film isn’t Thompson in totality. The real Thompson was mischievous, crude, and unpredictable, but Depp is too charismatic to allow these qualities to define him. Whether he means to or not, the actor brings innocence and optimism to every role he takes, from Gilbert Grape to Sweeney Todd, so even Duke, one of the least pleasant characters he’s ever played, oozes sympathy and charm.
Benicio Del Toro, on the other hand, is not so charming. There’s nothing optimistic or innocent about Dr. Gonzo, a paranoid, fast-tempered menace who tromps about like a massive bull, and then slithers out of sight when he’s most needed. Gonzo has even less control over himself than Duke does, and it’s apparent that he’s far too in touch with his death drive to feel safe around. Gonzo is the Daffy Duck to Duke’s Bugs Bunny: he is an unreliable backstabber, and yet Duke feels some responsibility for him. Duke often has to trick and manipulate Gonzo to keep him out of trouble, since it’s clear that force won’t work on a gun-flashing acid freak.
How these two nut-balls attained any level of professional success is a mystery to me, but Duke has been entrusted with the coverage of some dusty, off-road bike race called the Mint 400. Whom he’s writing for is never revealed, but the job itself is a cul-de-sac: a sequence of no consequence meant only to add to the movie’s mural of blazing, manic visuals.
I truly believe that Gilliam was less interested in conveying Thompson’s story — if there is one — than in portraying the outrageous sensory experiences it describes. Much of the movie’s imagery is derived from the book’s grotesque ink drawings, which are rendered in stark, splattery glory by Ralph Steadman. I think Gilliam fell in love with these drawings, and aimed to recreate them as best he could.
In his DVD commentary, Gilliam said that he wanted a feeling of unease to hang over the movie, so the audience can never quite feel comfortable. His crew colored every scene in garish, mismatched colors, and his camera seems forever trapped on a tilt-a-whirl. Things rarely slow down in this film, and those few moments when Duke and Gonzo slump into their hotel beds provide only fleeting respite. Every inch of this film is chaos, chaos. Rushing chaos, swinging chaos, reeling chaos, screaming chaos, violent chaos. It wiggles and sways like one who obeys every whim of one’s nerves, and the feeling becomes addictive. It makes me wonder: what’s the point of restraint in society? What’s the point of restraining oneself? What’s the point of restraining anything?
Of course, the movie also provides some good arguments in favor of restraint. After seeing this movie, I know that I certainly won’t go on a drug binge anytime soon. Sucking down tremendous amounts of acid, coke, and ether might sound like a party (to somebody), but Duke and Gonzo don’t seem to be enjoying themselves at all. In fact, they seem quite frightened and miserable much of the time. Gilliam claims that he’s never actually used any psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs, but he also says that his drug friends concede that he pretty much nailed the experience here.
Duke and Gonzo somehow avoid any serious consequences for their behavior, but Duke, for one, is unsettled at the depths he sinks to. This makes me wonder: why do people do this? Why do they leap into altered states with such abandon? How is it that reasonably intelligent adults, with jobs and paychecks, choose to approach such powerful experiences with zero respect for them?
And this makes me wonder about altered states in general: do they even have a meaning, or are they just not-so-cheap thrills? Are they little more than quick trips to our own private Disneylands? Opportunities to roll over and succumb while the world turns to a melting cartoon? Why would we take such opportunities? Are we so desperate for distraction that we’ll hurl ourselves into the whirling flush of the mental toilet for nothing but a memory-killing, vomit-inducing kick?
I don’t know the answers. All I do know is that I smoked Salvia a few times, and it took me someplace weird, but it sure as hell didn’t teach me anything.
Fear and Loathing was despised at its Cannes premiere, and despised again by critics. I agree that it can be hard to take. There’s fun to be had on this trip, but it doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no clear antagonist, nothing is at stake, and its heroes can be real dick-bags. Still, it makes me wonder, and about no superficial things. Any movie that makes me wonder so much can’t be all bad. I’m not smart or proud enough to purport that I grasp the movie’s meaning, especially since Thompson himself only enjoyed it with half his heart, but I admire its cynicism, its fearlessness, its coloration, and its relentless, exaggerated motion.
I could see an animated version of this film being directed by Ralph Bakshi. The man knows his mature cartoons, and I can see the teeny veins of Heavy Metal pulsing beneath the skin here. Of course, a cartoon would not be nearly as shocking or bewildering as Gilliam’s creation, which works mostly because of its effective disfigurement of real figures.