Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold.” 

Based on the book by Hunter S. Thompson (first published in the 1971 November issues of Rolling Stone magazine), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a hilarious and savage look at the death of the American Dream. Although, it could just as easily be a movie about two whack job’s doing all kinds of drugs on a weekend trip to Las Vegas, with no point to it at all.

Fear and Loathing is a movie that you will either love or hate. It took me a second viewing to fully appreciate its brilliance, which is hidden under a swarm of lunacy, hallucinations, and strange behavior. It’s a movie that many people have loved, as well as hated. It’s polarized many critics, audiences, and just about anyone lucky/unfortunate enough to stumble upon it. It’s not an easy trip to take, but as Raoul Duke says, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.”

Directed by the one and only Terry Gilliam, the film stars Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke, AKA Hunter S. Thompson, and  Benicio Del Toro as his attorney, Dr. Gonzo. The plot is arguably non existent, as it has our protagonists covering a race, gambling, taking all kinds of drugs, covering a DEA convention, wrecking convertibles, etc. etc. The amount of things that happen in this movie is so insurmountable the film cannot even show us all of it. Duke himself can’t seem to remember half of it, for that matter. Speaking of Duke, Depp narrates over the film as Thompson, who is essentially Duke, since Duke is Thompson’s alter ego. His narration keeps all the pieces together (your mileage may vary), explaining the situations, explaining his philosophy, questioning why he’s in Vegas in the first place, etc. Most of the time the narration is commenting on the events conspiring on screen, but twice in the film, Thompson monologues about the failed Love Generation, the reason it failed, and so on. It’s at these points the film shows its heart most, showing us that all the behavior we see is a result of a failed attempt to promote peace and love (as well as hide from the gruesome beast that is reality) with LSD and marijuana in a time of Vietnam and Richard Nixon.

The cast also includes many guest stars, which I refuse to list because 1) It’s unnecessary and 2) It’ll ruin the surprise for those who don’t know. The cinematography by Nicola Pecorini is excellent, while Gilliam’s directing matches the cinematography in terms of brilliance. Just about everything from the art direction, to the costumes, to the set design is excellent. Visually, the film is incredibly excellent. The soundtrack is phenomenal, using music from Big Brother & the Holding Company, Tom Jones, The Youngbloods, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and so on to great effect. The score by Ray Cooper, which shows its face every so often, is also excellent, manifesting the fear and loathing (and paranoia) into music.

When all is said and done, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is better left experienced than explained. It’s a film that should be watched by anyone with an open mind, and with an understanding that they will either hate or love this film. And if they hate it, they should re-watch it. And if they love it, they should re-watch it. Fear and Loathing is definitely a film that gets better with repeated viewings, which may be required for some to fully understand all that is happening (or at least some of what is happening). It’s a comedy that isn’t funny, a dark look at what we all strive for, a portrait of America at its worst, and a metaphor so vast that it might take you some time to fully conceive what you just witnessed. Indeed, this film is not for everyone, not for the faint of heart. But if you decide to take the trip, then may the Lord be on your side, and may you fully get something out of the experience, be it positive or negative. For there is no other film, story, trip, or metaphor quite like the one Thompson experienced and the one Gilliam concocted for the screen.

“There was only one road back to L.A. – U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. Safety. Obscurity. Just another freak, in the freak kingdom.” 

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