FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, 1998
Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci
Hunter S. Thompson sets off to find the American dream in the city of sin, Las Vegas. What follows is a psychedelic trip through a nightlife full of casinos, drugs and apes which Thompson chronicled in his book, believed by some to be the creation of Gonzo journalism.
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Terry Gilliam might be one of the best directors around, but when it came to tackling one of the greatest books of the last fifty years, it was never going to be easy. It was so difficult in fact that Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone had both been attached to direct but dropped out when it became infeasible. Gilliam however, is no stranger to difficulty. His classic bureaucracy fantasy Brazil is a prime example of this; with studios being so adamant that it would flop they refused to release it and the films eventual cinematic showing was only made possible thanks to a group of protesting critics. It seems, possibly more than other directors, he has a strong commitment to the more surreal visions film can create.
This dedication pays off though, mainly because Gilliamís visions are so strong and forthright they canít be controlled by outside powers. With that being the case he seems like the perfect choice for Fear and Loathing, a novel considered un-filmable because of the strength, bizarreness and viciousness of the prose. Predictably reactions were polarised when it was premiered, with so many reviewers indebted to the original novel they just didnít think the visuals could portray the lyrical violence of the book adequately. Luckily, thanks to DVD sales and reappraisals, Fear and Loathing is now seen as a cult classic and for people whoíve never read the book itís an accessible entry point to Thompsonís work.
Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp as Thompsonís alter ego) is racing his way to Vegas to cover a desert bike race in a red convertible, accompanied by a trunk full of drugs and a half-naked and fully high attorney. What starts out as a simple sports coverage story turns into a full blown epic when Duke, burnt out on the hippy movement, believes he has found the source of the American dream; an American dream made real by psychedelic drugs, greed and debauched excess. Itís easy to see why the novel was thought impossible to adapt. The lack of conventional narrative and any sort of immediately coherent point was never going to pack viewers into the cinemas, a particular problem when a major producer was backing this cinematic voyage. But there was something else helming this film, something which made all the difference.
Johnny Depp, even with his character acting ability proven with Ed Wood behind him, had a monumental task before him; he had to become the good doctor himself. This had been attempted previously by Bill Murray in the disappointing Where the Buffalo Roam, which attempted to put onto the screen, the life of Oscar Zeta Acosta, Hunterís attorney and the real life Dr. Gonzo. Not to be undone by the task ahead, Depp dug himself in at Woody Creek, Hunter S. Thompsonís fortified home, and learnt mannerisms, vocal traits and everything that made up Hunter. What made it onto the screen was a complete transformation. Like Murray before him Depp had become an angry, intelligent and drug addled doctor of journalism.
All acting credit cannot go to one person though, as Benicio Del Toroís performance as Dr. Gonzo (the attorney Oscar Acosta) is monstrously powerful. Flicking from subdued observer and enabler of the absurd happenings around him, to a violent all consuming whirlwind of a man- with a viciousness rarely seen outside of horror films. The two mains perform brilliant character pieces, and while they may be exaggerated, they are such extreme exaggerations they find themselves perfectly placed within the source material.
One of the best scenes with the two of them is a bathroom scene where Duke finds Gonzo in a hotel bathtub-replete with a head full of acid and thoughts of a suicidal nature. This scene of extremely twisted banter eventually leads to a knife wielding attorney and a smashed grapefruit. With Gilliamís claustrophobic camera work, Deppís desperation and Del Toroís wounded shrieks the scene becomes utterly horrifying, yet utterly compelling. The two of them help to bring to life such an extreme, unbelievable set of circumstances that could only occur when someoneís mind was so broken, that you could end up offering to kill someone with a bathroom rail.
The success of the film cannot entirely rest on the shoulders of its actors however. For a feature so beset by problems from the start, for the director to be able to, not only capture the raw visceral punch of the novel, but also to also capture the disorientating nature of the drugs is exceptional. With a wide range of lenses and lighting techniques, he managed to make the twisted words vividly come to life.
Make no mistake this was no mean feat. Managing to create a psychedelic battleground with the potency of that in the novel requires no small amount of skill. You can almost feel yourself relaxing into the final throes of a drug trip while the camera retreats away giving you breathing room, before it throws you right back into the insanity you thought youíd escaped. Itís a rollercoaster thrill ride of a film and by all accounts was probably to weird to live, but now itís here itís certainly far to rare to die.