Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

D: Terry Gilliam
S: Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro

Surprisingly faithful adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson's writings which captures much of their energy, though it fails to be quite as savage a journey to the heart of the American dream as might have been hoped. Under supreme stylist Terry Gilliam, the phantasmagorical aspects of this tale of excess are vividly realised. From animated bats visible only in sunglasses to a hotel bar filled with giant flesh-eating reptiles by Rob Bottin, the film revels in portraying the disorienting world of 1970s Las Vegas seen through the narcotically enhanced eyes and mind of the famous 'gonzo' journalist. He is played here by Johnny Depp, who impersonates the man's manner and voice with some skill, assisted by a perfectly revolting Benicio Del Toro as his equally addled attorney. The plot, in so far as it matters, follows the events which transpire when Thompson (working under the pseudonym Raoul Duke) is assigned to cover a motor bike race in Las Vegas and spends his time taking a variety of mood and mind altering drugs which inform his perspective on the city and its denizens. It is mostly concerned with a series of satirical observations, climaxing with a moment of sombre reflection about the death of the sixties.

This where the problem is. In print, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas largely retains is original anger. The precision of Thompson's prose extends beyond his description of the wild events captured so well on screen and which are so visually evocative that they cried out for someone to attempt this film (and Gilliam may well have been the only director capable of handling them). He also manages to maintain a sense of the political and social anger which underlies this bad trip. It is both frightening and funny, and works best when able to evoke feelings of disgust and outrage as the hypocracies of the system. Though the film makes liberal use of a voice over drawn from the book, it never manages to find the icy edge which makes Thompson so chilling to read, and ultimately brings little fear or loathing to the fore, merely smug, postmodern self-referentiality.

This is not necessarily the fault of anyone involved. It is perhaps more a to the point to note that a film like Fear and Loathing Las Vegas cannot exist in the world of Natural Born Killers. The mood and tone of the early seventies was entirely different from that of 1998, and in the time it has taken for this film to make it to the screen, the attitude to this type of surrealism is not shock or outrage. This is the era of meaninglessness where all culture is equally moot and nothing matters beyond the next ephemeral sensation. While this may have been true of the culture being explored in Thompson's writing, his own sense of how and why this was happening was articulate and emotionally powerful. Postmodernism is not about 'why', and is concerned with 'how' only insofar as a technical challenge must be overcome. Gilliam has done this with aplomb, and though he has tried to incorporate Thompson's sense of the seventies, it really doesn't resonate with the audience of the nineties except as quaint and amusing retro.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is amusing. It is often hilariously funny, a broad, hallucinogenic comedy of drugs and rock and roll (with not all that much sex). It even manages to work in moments of satire, though the predominant tone is of a slapstick farce. It is also brilliantly made, a superb display of craftsmanship and directorial control. It is finely balanced and well paced, performed with energy by Depp and Del Toro (and a variety of name actors in cameo roles), and generally a 'good' film insofar as the qualification for 'good' is that it uses the medium effectively.

The question remains: what purpose does any of this serve? As cinema, is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas what it was as prose? While to some this may be irrelevant, it is important in understanding the film within its cultural and economic context as late twentieth century entertainment. Robbed of its ability to touch its audience and force them to ask questions of themselves and their lives by a world which does not allow such questions to matter, the film has nothing to offer in terms of a picture of society. It is indicative of postmodern culture, but cannot penetrate it. Thompson skewered early 1970s America in a style which admittedly led on to the kind of empty excess which defines the late twentieth century. It is unfortunate that only the superficial elements of that style have survived. Despite what might have been the best of intentions on the part of its makers, this film is ultimately as empty as the most vapid action film. It works as sensation, as spectacle and should earn a few dollars at the box office (perhaps even generate a cult following, although the 1980 film of Thompson's work Where the Buffalo Roam has few admirers), but it most certainly does not encourage serious thought about contemporary society. It is not even as overtly concerned with the contemporary as Natural Born Killers. Simply because it is set in the 1970s, there is a distance between the audience and the film which further handicaps its attempt to touch their souls. Amongst a generation to whom history is fluid, subjective and indeterminate, what purpose does the past serve except to provide material for the next big set piece or the next trend in fashion? What is acid to the ecstasy generation?

Still, it is worth seeing this film as a skilful adaptation of an 'unfilmable' book (like David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch), and for the pleasures it does offer in terms of performance and execution. These may not change your life, but they will perhaps fill the void for as long as they last and tide you over until the next bit of moving wallpaper passes by.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.