Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
November 23, 2003
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro, Tobey Maguire, Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Christina Ricci, Mark Harmon, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Penn Jillette, Craig Bierko, Lyle Lovett, Flea,
After more than twenty years of failed attempts and missed opportunities, Terry Gilliam has done what many thought impossible — he fully and faithfully realized Hunter S. Thompson’s classic novel, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, into a wonderfully demented movie.
It’s been five years since Gilliam’s film was released briefly in movie theaters and on a bare-bones DVD by Universal Studios. Now, the wonderful folks at Criterion have assembled an incredible two DVD set with a massive treasure trove of extras for fans of this cult film.
Set in 1971, journalist Raoul Duke (Depp) and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro), drive to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race known as the Mint 400 for Sports Illustrated magazine. However, the race is merely an excuse for the duo to abuse their expense account and indulge in a galaxy of drugs. What initially is a simple journey to cover a motorcycle race mutates into a bizarre search for the American Dream.
From the brilliantly realized opening scene on a deserted stretch of highway that involves Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s encounter with a terrified hitchhiker, Fear and Loathing perfectly captures the many funny moments and classic dialogue from the book. Gilliam wisely uses entire passages and augments them with his own visual zingers as the deranged pair make their way through the surreal landscape that is Las Vegas.
Visually, Fear and Loathing is a whacked out kaleidoscope of colours and insanely inventive camera angles and perspectives — a psychedelic blitzkrieg on the senses. Leave it to Gilliam and cinematographer, Nicola Pecorini to crank up the already gaudy Vegas strip another psychotic notch as we see Las Vegas through Duke’s drug-addled eyes.
And these eyes are inhabited by none other than Johnny Depp. He literally transforms himself into Duke/Thompson, complete with the man’s unusual bow-legged walk, sweeping arm movements, mumbling speech pattern, and the trademark Dunhill cigarette in a holder between clenched teeth. It’s a stunning performance that transcends simple mimicry and proves that Depp is one of the finest actors working in movies today.
This is indeed some kind of a genius film, but in a really demented way that would be hard to explain to someone who didn’t understand Terry Gilliam’s approach to the material. Fear and Loathing received a critical shellacking from all the usual pundits (Ebert et al.). It’s a very strange film — a two-hour acid trip from beginning to end with no respite, no rest stops, and no objective distance from which to view the whole insane picture safely. You are plunged headlong into this weird, wild world.
It’s sink or swim time as the film’s humour simultaneously disturbs and delights — a pitch-black satire of American culture and excess. Around the 3/4-way mark, Fear and Loathing veers off into really dark territory as the horror that accompanies chemical dependency rears its ugly head. There was a fear that this element would be lost in the transfer from book to film and that Fear and Loathing was going to be simply a “straight” comedy. Thankfully, the darker edginess of the book has been retained and reinforced in a nasty scene that takes place in a diner between Duke, Dr. Gonzo, and a waitress (Ellen Barkin) whom the attorney threatens. It’s a scene that makes you question any kind of previous identification you might have had with Duke or Dr. Gonzo.
Gilliam’s film also retains the book’s politics. Thompson was lamenting the death of ’60s idealism that was savagely stomped by the self-absorbed Me Generation of the ’70s. This element is what elevates Fear and Loathing from being just a goofy comedy about two guys getting drunk and stoned.
The first DVD features not one, but three audio commentaries! Director Terry Gilliam talks at length about the look of the movie and adapting the book to the big screen. The second track is a real coup for Criterion as actors Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro (who have never done a commentary), with producer Laila Nabulsi, candidly discuss working on the film (Nabulsi wanted Ralph Steadman to create the opening credits). Finally, the man himself, author Hunter S. Thompson contributes the strangest, funniest commentary as a roomful of people try in vain to keep him on topic as he talks about anything that comes into his mind. It is a real testimony to the folks at Criterion that they were able to get Depp, Del Toro, and especially Thompson to record audio tracks for this DVD. I would be hard-pressed to pick my favourite commentary — each one has its own unique pleasures.
Carried over from the original DVD are three deleted scenes but now Gilliam has provided optional audio commentaries for each one. He talks about why the footage was cut and puts them in context with the rest of the movie.
The second DVD contains the bulk of the supplemental material. The first of two sections focuses on the movie. There is a substantial collection of Gilliam’s storyboards for Fear and Loathing, actual production designs by storyboard artists and an excellent assortment of behind-the-scenes pictures taken by set photographer, Peter Mountain. Johnny Depp reads, on-camera, a collection of correspondence from Hunter S. Thompson while he was making the movie. Hunter Goes to Hollywood, is a funny, ten-minute featurette that documents Thompson filming his cameo in Fear and Loathing. Another extra is an audio track that examines Gilliam and the film’s co-screenwriter, Tony Grisoni’s bitter fight against the Writers Guild of America to get credit for their screenplay which culminated in the director burning his membership card. Rounding out this section is a collection of TV spots and the theatrical trailer with optional commentary from Gilliam. He briefly talks about how the ad campaign for his film was all wrong and may have contributed to its box office failure.
The second section focuses on Thompson’s book. There is a fascinating photo essay on Oscar Zeta Acosta (the real Dr. Gonzo) by his son that provides background on the man. The folks at Criterion also found rare footage of Acosta reading from one his books, The Revolt of the Cockroach People. Thompson reads his introduction to one of Acosta’s books — it is a wonderful tribute to his friend who mysteriously disappeared years ago and has never been seen since. No look at the book would be complete without a gallery of Ralph Steadman’s legendary artwork for the book. There is also a sample from the audio CD of Fear and Loathing that features independent filmmaker, Jim Jarmusch as Duke and Maury Chaykin as Dr. Gonzo. Perhaps, the best extra in this section is a 50 minute BBC documentary, entitled Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood. A camera crew follows Steadman and Thompson on a road trip from Las Vegas to Hollywood. Shot in 1978, this is incredible archival footage of Thompson in action (there is even film of the man’s infamous run for Sheriff of Aspen, Colorado) that is a must-see for any fan of the Doctor of Journalism.
The Criterion edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an amazing achievement. Not only have they amassed a staggering amount of background material on the movie and the book, but they have also remastered the film itself with a stunning anamorphic transfer and an aggressively atmospheric DTS soundtrack. Gilliam’s film has never looked or sounded so good. Love or hate this movie, Criterion has provided its fans with hours of enjoyment and entertainment.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is pure Gonzo filmmaking for people who like strange, challenging films. Otherwise, stay clear of this cinematic oddity for it is a truly bizarre film that chronicles the destructive effects of substance abuse and how this intertwines with a morally bankrupt culture. And in these troubled and savage times, both Thompson’s book and Gilliam’s film are more relevant than ever before.