"Ignore the nightmare in the bathroom." - Raoul Duke (surely, if not an old proverb already, it will be eventually).
True story: half an hour after watching Terry Gilliam's 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas this morning, I was walking down my street. As I passed a house where some contractors were working on a remodel, I overheard one of the contractors explaining to the other about the "Paul is Dead" conspiracy surrounding the Abbey Road album cover. "George was dressed as a gravedigger," he said, "and Paul wasn't wearing any shoes."
Clearly something is in the ether today. The Beatles released Abbey Road, the last album they recorded, in late 1969. Within a year, they were no more, arguably closing the door on 1960s pop culture, following the zeitgeist of the decade right down the tubes. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is set in 1971. The peace-and-love generation is long gone, and chaos only exists in its place. Hunter S. Thompson's story of tumbling into a drug-fueled rabbit hole of decadence and danger was a harbinger of the decade that was to follow. Like the dust cloud at the motorcycle race he is sent to Sin City to cover, the 1970s would be a brown maelstrom of disappointment and disaster. Political activism would give way to complacency post-Nixon, and music and fashion was becoming bloated and boring. Let's face it, if it weren't for its cinema, the 1970s would be a decade best left forgotten. Torch the records, send it away!
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was long considered an "unfilmmable" book. Like William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch, it was a tome revered for the irreverent prose style and the author's willingness to engage with all things taboo, and without the quality of the former the latter was rather difficult to capture. Conventional narratives these are not, and it would take equally unconventional filmmakers to make a movie out of them. Luckily, David Cronenberg got his mitts on Naked Lunch, and Terry Gilliam, the former Python turned surreal fantasist, tackled Fear and Loathing.
Johnny Depp stars as Hunter S. Thompson, who went to Las Vegas as a journalist, covering an epic motorcycle race in the desert under the guise of Raoul Duke. He would also stick around to report on a convention for law enforcement officers. Ironically, their chosen subject was stopping narcotics. Thompson is a notorious druggy, and he spends the entirety of this movie hopped up on some chemical concoction or another. Along for the ride is his "attorney," the larger-than-life Dr. Gonzo, played with pure animalistic chutzpah by Benicio Del Toro. The actor gives a purely physical performance, ditching actorly mannerisms for phlegm and sweat. He is perpetually clearing himself of some sort of bodily substance, and his character has a sinister bend that is truly disturbing. By juxtaposition, Thompson is a cartoon character, and Depp plays him as such. As a performance, it is definitely one extended impression of the real deal, but Depp approaches Thompson's contrived personage with the same honest intensity as, say, Robert Downey Jr. taking on Charlie Chaplin. It's less an act than it is sculpture: the karate chops and whistles chip away at the artifice until it turns into something absolutely authentic.
Plot seems irrelevant in a discussion of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The movie's script went through various permutations, including a pass by Repo Man-director Alex Cox, who is one of four credited screenwriters (Gilliam is also on the list). Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas doesn't really have a narrative arc, it's more like a narrative descent. The thrust of the story is ever downward, as each over indulgence alienates Gonzo and Thompson further from real life, to a point where things get so paranoid and weird, not even the criminal underbelly of Vegas will have anything to do with them. There is a tremendous scene here in a back-alley diner, featuring a memorable cameo by Ellen Barkin. She plays a waitress who ends up on the wrong side of Gonzo's anger, and Del Toro's beastly delivery of the threats is so convincing, it's hard to tell if Barkin is acting or if she's really scared.
It's an interesting view of Las Vegas, taking us down its glitzy ladder rung by rung, going from its most surreal heights (a version of the kiddy casino Circus Circus) to this rundown, all-too-earthly greasy spoon. It seems to me that the key to the material is in understanding that the city itself is a trippy place, that the drugs are almost a tool for comprehending its garishness. No matter how weird the hallucinations get, Vegas can match the nightmare horror for horror. Visually, Gilliam and his team make tremendous use of the city's neon landscape. A driving montage down the strip uses rear projection and cutaways to melt and bend the surrounding signs and advertisements. Overdone hotel wallpaper and carpets come alive and swallow the patrons. Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (The Order, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus) often sets the camera at an angle, so that the image leans to one-side, upsetting the equilibrium of the frame. It's almost as if the movie is trying to spill its protagonists out of the other side of the screen the way you or I might try to kick away a dog humping our leg.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is nearly formless in its construction, though it solidifies over each selective viewing. To carry the drug metaphor, you build a kind of tolerance, gaining an ability to maintain the more you partake. Though I wouldn't have said so when it was first released, I'd hazard to call it Terry Gilliam's most together movie. Not necessarily his best, but possibly the one where he is most in command of the elements. For all the bedlam depicted onscreen, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is meticulously choreographed. Many of the scenes of Gonzo and Thompson wandering through the casinos while going off their heads play for extended lengths without much cutting. In these, they are each performing independent actions, including interacting with crowds of extras. Sometimes it's super complicated, like the hotel bar when they first get to town, just before all the other drinkers turn into lizards; other times, it's more simple. When Gonzo argues their way into a Debbie Reynolds concert, Thompson stays by himself, doing more drugs on the sly. Gilliam keeps the shot wide and lets the actors move around the frame. You could watch either of them do their thing, they are both doing something interesting, and yet it also works perfectly in tandem.
Naturally, with an experience like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there is no real exit, no grand conclusion to be had. The trip ends--in both senses of the word. The vacation is over, the vacationers have to come down off of the high. Yet, Gilliam gives us a satisfying wrap-up anyway. In his way, he has contained the chaos, and so there is a relief in making our way back out of it. Rubber hits the road, and Hunter S. Thompson heads back to Los Angeles, a smile on his face, remembering all the devils in the preceding details, having survived to return to some kind of perceived normalcy. And yet, that grin also says it's never going to be completely over: the craziest diamonds always shine on.
Criterion's 2003 DVD of Fear and Loathing is still probably one of the highest praised in its collection. I'm actually a little sad to see the cool plastic slipcover from the DVD disappear; that said, it's the only thing to disappear, this Blu-Ray matches the previous edition in all other ways.
The film is given a new 1080p transfer at a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. All aspects of the image look good. There is a nice grain throughout, and a strong balance between natural colors and the more gaudy colors of the Vegas strip; likewise, more barren scenes have a real sense of place and detail. The washed-out diner scene mentioned above portrays a sadness and devastation through color and careful accents, and it plays in high-def just as intended. There is very little by way of digital noise or edge enhancement. I can't tell you how the previously released Universal Blu-Ray edition stacks up to this, though I am inclined to rate it higher than the previous reviewer, so I'd say be confident that this version is at least a little bit better.
Two options are offered for the original soundtrack: a 2.0 DTS-HD master audio soundtrack, and an alternative 5.1 mix, at DTS-HD. Judging by the packaging, the 2.0 seems to be recommended, but it's really six of one, half a dozen of the other. Both sound great. I mainly watched the 5.1 and found it to have a lot of good ambient detail, making effective use of all the speakers, and moving through the various audio elements in pleasing ways.
Subtitling for the deaf and hearing impaired is included.
As noted above, all the extras here match the older DVD, including the Ralph Steadman cover and the extended booklet with two articles by Thompson and a critical appreciation by J. Hoberman. Again, the plastic covering that gave the original cover art a two-tier effect is gone, but that is a small complaint.
The previous edition was two-discs, but Criterion has dropped it down to one for Blu-Ray. A brief rundown of all the extras:
* Three commentaries: One by Gilliam; a fun, conversational chat with Depp and Del Toro, along with producer Laila Nabulsi; and a third featuring producer Nabulsi hanging out with Hunter S. Thompson himself, along with his assistant. The latter proves to be amusing, with some predictably insane outbursts.
* Deleted Scenes, with optional commentary by Gilliam: Four in total, mostly extraneous, hence their being cut.
* A selection of Hunter Thompson's letters, read by Johnny Depp, to whom they were written (video, about 15 minutes)
* "Hunter Goes to Hollywood": a short video about Thompson visiting the set; this is by Wayne Ewing, who made Breakfast With Hunter and other films about Thompson. (11 minutes)
* "Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood", a 1978 BBC documentary running about 50 minutes and featuring Thompson and artist Ralph Steadman.
* "Not the Screenplay", the story of the fight over the movie's writing credits. It's kind of fascinating how convoluted the rules can be. This is audio only, featuring Gilliam and Nabulsi (18 minutes), plus "A Dress Pattern", a two-minute movie Gilliam made during the battle.
* A section on the real Dr. Gonzo, Oscar Zeta Acosta, including Acosta reading from his own work and Thompson paying tribute to the man.
* Audio book excerpt, 8 minutes of the book with Jim Jarmusch, Maury Chaykin, and Harry Dean Stanton.
* A trailer and seven TV commercials
* A Ralph Steadman Gallery
* Storyboards, production designs, and a photo gallery
All supplements are in high-definition.
DVD Talk Collector Series. The Criterion re-release of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may match their DVD release in content, but it's still a package that is far and away superior to most basic studio releases and it features upgraded technical specs to make the Blu-Ray absolutely worthwhile. This freewheeling nutjob of a film deserves it, too. Terry Gilliam has done the impossible by making Hunter S. Thompson's iconic book into a streamlined, cohesive movie. Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro turn in amazing performances as the main characters, and the whole movie is an explosion of visual fireworks. This cinematic road trip is a ride worth taking no matter how many times you climb in the car.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.