Albeit cliché to cite a Wikipedia definition, the niche categorisation of an ‘American psychedelic satirical black comedy road film’ to Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas seems particularly original. If you’ve never heard of this genre, that might be because it didn’t come into existence until the outlandish 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel by the same name.
Fear and Loathing is not an easy watch. Between the inaudible dialogue and obscure camera angles, any search for a redemptive plot line is quickly rendered futile. The film follows a journalist named Raoul Duke and his drug-addled attorney, Dr Gonzo, as they journey to Las Vegas with a case full of psychedelics you’ve never heard of, and a vague intent to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. What follows is two hours of drug-fuelled hysteria, accompanied by the strangely lucid narrative voice of the protagonist.
As the film begins, Duke and his accomplice are seen speeding down a stretch of Nevada highway in a red Chevrolet convertible. They come across a hitchhiker who hesitates at the offer of a lift. There are two choices. Stay at the side of the road and deride the silly irreverence; or jump in and enjoy the ride. Views on this cult classic are firmly polarised between those who choose the former, and those who surrender to the latter.
It would be a mistake to assume that Fear and Loathing is nothing more than a loosely autobiographical tale of Thompson’s strange adventures. With carefully selected quotes, the film retains his astute insight through the voice of the narrator. Intoxicated or otherwise, Duke makes incisive observations on the American dream and the decadence of Vegas casinos. At the Circus Circus Casino, the two men sit at a bar in the middle of a merry-go-round, served by an expressionless barmaid dressed as a clown. Duke turns to his attorney and says, “We came out here to find the American Dream, and now that we’re right in the vortex you want to quit… You must realise that we’ve found the main nerve”. “I know” replies his attorney. “That’s what gives me the Fear.”
Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke is central to the film’s realisation, capturing Thompson’s erratic tone and mannerisms perfectly. As Dr Gonzo, Benicio Del Toro cuts an especially pitiful figure in his overindulgence. Nevertheless, he simultaneously provides much of the film’s comic relief in the depths of his binges and bizarre side plots.
The illusive Mint 400 story casts a metaphorical shadow over the antics. When Duke arrives at the race, he misses its beginning since he’s drinking in the press tent. He and his photographer attempt to find the race in their car when they are assailed by a dune buggy full of gun-wielding race enthusiasts who ask them “Where’s the damn race?”. All Duke can say is, “Beats me. We’re just good patriotic Americans like yourself.”
Everyone that Duke encounters seems to be disaffected by the American experience. They cannot find the race, or the big win at the casinos. The film pays just enough attention to Thompson’s narrative to avoid becoming a caricature of itself, whilst Gilliam’s cartoonist style and absurd visual effects allow the film to exist as its own entity. It is funny, but also mournful. The sobering undertones ensure that it doesn’t quite degenerate into farce. Overall, Fear and Loathing balances its respective elements well, avoiding many of the pitfalls which come with adapting such a masterpiece.
Image: Michael Chernetsov via flickr