A close friend questioned my latest viewing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with claims that he “didn’t get” the film. A completely understandable complaint when you place the film under any scrutiny. In this fourth re-watch of Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film, I find myself thinking the same thing. Conversations with fans in the past always brought around the same talking points.
As this is a film about drugs so you must take drugs to understand it. Otherwise, you must read the seminal book of the same name that the film is based on which founded the gonzo journalism movement to truly see what the film is getting at. I’m always wary of such remarks. The first point is ludicrous when you consider that there’s more than enough films that revolve around drugs that are entertaining, insightful or indeed disturbing without the need to imbibe any stimulants. The second point often reeks of cultural arrogance. That without reading the source material, your feeble little mind is unable to gain any bearings of the material at all.
Granted both arguments hold weight. First-hand use of recreational drugs and reading of Thompson’s work may possibly help an audience read in-between the lines of the chaos which is slapped on screen. But essentially, in the case of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas the movie, it’s hard to believe the film hits any real nerve as it comes across as an uninspired translation of the work. In an interview with ELLE, Gilliam said: “I want it to be seen as one of the great movies of all time, and one of the most hated movies of all time.” He was really swinging for the fences. When doesn’t he?
However, looking back at Fear and Loathing now, it’s difficult to see what exactly there is to get that excited about. It lacks the pulsing energy that inhabits the likes of Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), or Justin Kerrigan’s fondly noted Human Traffic (1999), coming off like a meandering mess that, while mimicking the effects of the drugs consumed, has very little to say in the way of coherence. Depp’s narration and performance should not be something to be sniffed at; it holds a lot of the film together. The issue is much of the film is sweaty, rambling drug-fuelled arguments that aren’t particularly worth listening to. The second talking point previously mentioned does hold the strongest element of truth here. I don’t need to read the source to understand it, but perhaps reading the book will grant the viewer a particular type of grace, which may work better on the page; or at least if it were adapted differently, perhaps?
The film feels more like a series of vignettes than a true linear narrative. The drug-addled protagonist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his equally suspect “lawyer” Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) travel across the Nevada Desert with the aim of covering Mint 400 motorcycle race for a magazine. However, with the large galaxy of multicoloured uppers, downers, screamers and laughers at their disposal, this feels more like a pretence and more of a sesh to end all seshes. We watch as the duo sway haplessly from situation to situation, abusing tourists and causing chaos as they stumble around the bright lights of Vegas. Nice work if you can get it.
Don’t expect too much else from this. At first, the film’s wild and out-there hallucinations and visuals are eye-catching in their garishness and Gilliam’s ability to illustrate the more intense trips being experiences, while not being a drug taker himself, is quite impressive. He captures the feeling with a particular acuteness; the peculiar low angles, the purposely distorting extra wide-angle lens, the odd colouring. In comparison to many drug films, Gilliam appears to nail the outer body experience of being high – or what this writer would suspect, considering some of the drugs, of course. The visuals re-enact the strangeness and grotesque nature of a such a binge. It is otherworldly at times.
And yet, it’s also boring. Gilliam may have been aiming for offence, however, he doesn’t achieve this with dull repetition. So much of the film is elongated scenes of Depp’s and Del Toro’s characters taking assorted drugs and arguing incoherently in hotels. There are some childish antics (what did these guys do during the Debbie Reynolds show?), and some vague moments of tension – the raw argument between the men and Ellen Barkin as a waitress comes in way too late – but, and excuse the pretentious critical exclamation here, what is this film trying to say? When the film sporadically touches upon America blowing its utopian, hippie dream of the 60s, it becomes interesting. Insightful even. However, like having to watch someone else playing a video game, one must wade through two people shouting at each other while doped up on goofballs and occasionally abusing the strangers that inhabit Las Vegas. If you’ve ever gone to a party sober and had to deal with everyone else losing their mind, Fear and Loathing is much like that experience; intoxicated people spewing nonsense to each other pretending it’s profound when it’s rather annoying.
Maybe this is the true meaning of Fear and Loathing? That the end of the free love era brought forth a tidal wave of cold paranoia, illegal substances and anxiety? Maybe the irony that these characters searching for the authentic American Dream in the middle of the falsest place in America is what we’re meant to take away? Yes, it’s clear from the title that people are experiencing “fear and loathing in Las Vegas” but isn’t there a better way of expressing these themes?
Well, yes. It’s the book. Save for a sometimes-astonishing Johnny Depp performance, there’s not much to go back and explore with this piece. For a shaggy dog story about lost American innocence, we can now watch Inherent Vice (2014). For the falsehood of the American Dream, we can go back to Citizen Kane (1941). But connecting with Fear and Loathing is still far too tricky from this writer’s experience. It’s a film that’s too aggressive and jarring to escape and get lost in its grotesque world with its characters who aren’t empathic enough to be engaging. However, the book is on my Amazon wishlist. I may possibly be wrong about cultural arrogance.