This entry was originally published Nov. 3, 2010, but lost in a server accident. The version here was recreated from scratch and re-published on Oct. 24, 2012. Eric Young contributed to this article.
“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”–Hunter S. Thompson, “Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl”
DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam
PLOT: Journalist Raoul Duke heads to Las Vegas with his attorney (“Dr. Gonzo”) and a suitcase full of exotic drugs to cover a motorcycle race. Somewhere around Barstow, the drugs start to take hold. The mission changes into a quest to find the secret of the American Dream, an excuse for an orgy of hallucinogenic hedonism and dangerously antisocial behavior as the pair tromp through the unreal neon wonderland of Sin City.
- Hunter S. Thompson‘s novel “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream” was published in 1971 and became an instant counterculture classic. Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone each hoped to adapt the novel to film, but plans fell through.
- The character of Dr. Gonzo, played by Benicio Del Toro in the film, was based on Hunter S. Thompson’s real-life friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, an attorney/activist. Acosta mysteriously disappeared three years after the publication of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1974 while traveling through Mexico and has not been seen since.
- The original script for the film was written by Alex Cox and his colleague Tod Davies, but differences between Cox and the producer Laila Nabulsi, as well as open disdain of his treatment by an unhappy Hunter S. Thompson, led to the script being dropped. This left only a few precious days for Terry Gilliam and screenwriter Tony Grisoni to write a new script to begin production with. Gilliam and Grisoni allegedly finished their script in only eight days, with two additional days for rewrites.
- Featured heavily in the opening of the book, the Rolling Stones track “Sympathy for the Devil” was going to be the opening theme that set the tone for the rest of the film, but Allen Klein, former manager of The Rolling Stones and owner of a sizable chunk of their early library, demanded an exorbitant $300,000 for the song. As this would have devoured half of the soundtrack budget, so Terry Gilliam opted for the more fiscally reasonable “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” as the closing track.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: We’ll go with the scene where Duke, who is peaking on acid while checking into the Mint hotel and has already seen the carpet climbing up a cowboy’s leg and hotel clerk Katherine Helmond‘s face stretching like Silly Putty, suddenly sees the denizens of the hotel bar transformed into a tribe of literal lounge lizards.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Master fantasist Terry Gilliam brings Hunter S. Thompson’s semi-autobiographical satirical novel about a degenerate journalist and his equally debased attorney companion whose idea of a good time is to sniff ether and scarf mescaline before striding into the whirling carnival of the Bazooka Circus casino to howling life. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo’s increasingly deranged pilgrimage to the Mecca of American venality turns into a grim and perverse endurance test for both them and the viewer, as the pair see how far they can push the limits of decency without losing their lives, freedom or sanity.
Original trailer for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
COMMENTS: When Terry Gilliam was promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in 1998, I recall him saying two things on the interview circuit that stuck out: first, he hated drugs. Secondly, he hated Las Vegas. Those confessions made me question whether he was the appropriate man to adapt the cult novel about two modern savages rampaging through Sin City while chugging down a psychedelic rainbow of hallucinogenic substances. The contemporaneous response to the film suggested the pairing was, indeed, a mismatch. Pitched as a comic romp, the puke-stained antics of Dr. Gonzo proved too disgustingly visceral for most critics and viewers. Some fans of the novel found Gilliam’s vision too grotesque, lacking the novel’s context and sense of humor, while newcomers to the story saw only a meandering tale about two antisocial drunks acting like asses. Even my initial review of the movie in 1998 was slightly negative: I wrote “Gilliam films the novel quite literally… and the literalism is part of the reason why the movie fails. The novel was about venality, depravity and corruption, but the movie simply is venal, depraved and corrupt. The novel is a swirl of reality, supposition, imagination, hallucination and exaggeration, but we are always safe in the hands of Thompson, whose prose gives the sense of blindly groping for meaning amidst the bestiality. By putting these depictions on the screen without his mediation… we only garner a sense of disgust as we witness Dr. Gonzo puking his guts out in graphic detail…”
There’s still something to that criticism, but Fear and Loathing has proven to be a movie that has stood the test of time: it’s better on a second viewing, after the initial shock and disgust has worn off. As a comic romp featuring a pair of lovably hip scamps putting one over on the establishment Vegas squares, the movie does fail. But what made the novel linger in the mind was not only the picaresque drug trips and Duke’s crazy sleep-deprived schemes, but also the undercurrent of sadness expressed in the book (and movie’s) epigram: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.”
Fear and Loathing is a tragedy about disillusionment disguised as a comedy about rebellion. The opening scenes—with Depp swatting at the imaginary bats he sees reflected in his mirrored shades as he and Del Toro terrify a hitchhiking hayseed hippie with tall tales about traveling to Vegas to rub out a scag baron—do set a tone of off-kiler alt-humor. Dr. Gonzo fires a pistol into the air, but it only clicks; unlike the man wielding it, it’s not loaded. The pair of rapscallions are essentially harmless. Depp and Del Toro appear to be Merry Pranksters, holy fools infiltrating the green felt halls of the rich and mighty. Their intentions are pure; after spending the night before the journey stoned on the beach, Duke proclaims the trip to Vegas is to be “an affirmation of everything right and true in the national character, a gross physical salute to the possibilities of life in this country.”
And, for a little while, it is. Through the film’s first half, Duke and Gonzo’s adventures are of the put-one-over-on-the-squares variety. They mock the sacred institutions of the Debbie Reynolds Showroom. They try to keep it together while bombed out of their gourds, as the faces of the hotel staff morph into serpents and the power of speech forsakes them. They search for the American dream and find only miserable suburban gamblers looking for Tom Jones tickets and a cheap shrimp cocktail. The trip peaks on the midway to the Bazooka Circus, a bizarre hyperreality that makes psychedelics superfluous. High above the casino floor a trapeze routine involves a pregnant acrobat giving birth to a baby astronaut, complete with umbilical cord. A cowboy barker offers the chance for your image to appear on the Strip 200 feet tall. It’s the American dream seen in funhouse mirrors.
But it’s too much stimulation; between hiccups, a dyspeptic Dr. Gonzo mumbles that he’s got “the Fear.” Back in the hotel room, he takes a whole sheet of blotter acid and, knife in hand, climbs into a bathtub filled with dirty brown water and bobbing grapefruit and begs Duke to electrocute him with the tape recorder when Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” peaks. Duke locks him in the bathroom and reflects that Gonzo’s high is over; marinating in his own filth, the poor bastard will now have to endure one of those “hellishly intense introspective nightmares.”
Duke takes the break in the action as a chance to write and reflect; he remembers San Francisco in 1965, the burgeoning LSD scene and the feeling that in that time and place “There was madness in any direction, at any hour… You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. Our energy would simply prevail… We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…” Seven years later, in this Las Vegas hotel room with an armed roommate in the grips of drug psychosis, he realizes that youthful dream is long past. Gazing out his window, he muses that he “can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”
This central “wave” speech is the first time we realize that the Las Vegas trip itself, which begins in hope and a spirit of fun and ends in hedonistic degradation, is an allegory for the defeat of the naïve ideas of the 1960s counterculture. From this point on, the comic tone of the film slowly shifts into the background, as the costs of Duke and Gonzo’s overindulgence starts to catch up with them. Things really go wrong when Duke takes too much adrenochrome, turns beet red and sees multiple Richard Nixon heads invading his hotel room. (Adrenochrome, a mythical psychedelic stimulant that can only be extracted from a freshly harvested human adrenal gland, is a symbol of the “bad drugs” like speed and heroin that were scarfed up in the dying days of the Sixties by indiscriminate hippies reared on the “peace and love” drugs like pot and LSD). The story becomes more fractured, a series of barely sketched incidents of the boys breaking open coconuts with hammers and screaming incoherently at middle-class motorists gawking at the lights of the Strip. Scenes of Del Toro emptying his guts into the toilet bowl or out the window of the convertible proliferate. Their hotel room is trashed beyond all semblance of reality; bottles and syringes float in an inch of liquid, the walls are smeared with Playboy pinups and ketchup, and someone has set up a shrine to Debbie Reynolds, complete with glitter and Christmas lights.
These low points of the trip reach their nadir in a quiet scene that’s performed with the pounding realism of a hangover. Out of pure boredom, Dr. Gonzo pulls out his trusty knife and psychologically abuses a hard-luck waitress, played with dignity by an achingly human Ellen Barkin. Duke can only sit by and watch, as if he’s been detached from his worse half and forced to observe the atrocity. Depp’s performance in this scene as slinks out of the diner, returning his plate of food silently with the sad realization that the violation goes far beyond the possibility of any apology he could offer, is one of the few truly decent moments Depp allows his caricature. It’s the point at which Duke realizes their experiment in the antisocial has gone too far. Once, he thought their positive energy would prevail over the official forces of corruption, the powers behind Jim Crow and Vietnam; now, the aging refugees of the Love Generation were terrorizing poor women at knife-point. It suddenly appears that the titular loathing is as rightfully directed toward the hero as it is toward the establishment.
Focusing on the theme of disillusionment and loss of innocence–both countercultural and personal—may be the key to unlocking the power of the film. With its intoxicated camerawork, CGI hallucinations and neon lit unreality, the movie works as pure eye candy and hallucinogenic spectacle. As a comedy, it’s less successful; but Gilliam does capture the loathing of the tale. The script’s downward spiral into ever worsening psychosis makes for a hard sell, particularly for those who come looking for a psychedelic wish-fulfillment fantasy, a simple tale of weirdos triumphing over squares by sheer force of weirdness. That surface element is there, but it’s the way Gilliam taps into the underlying sadness of Thompson’s decline and breakdown that makes the film distressing, memorable, and ultimately beautiful.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Shot with queasy-making, distorting wide-angle lenses and filled with frenetic activity and a torrent of mostly nonsensical dialogue, pic serves up a sensory overload without any compensatory reflection on the outlandish and irresponsible behavior on view.”–Todd McCarthy, Variety (contemporaneous)
“Shot in an MTV-on-peyote style of wide-angle paranoia, with the gaudy bad taste of Vegas melding into the upset-stomach decor of the characters’ psychedelic visions, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a frowsy, surrealist freak show in which Duke and Gonzo stumble through hotel rooms and casinos jabbering barely coherent gibberish, vomiting into toilets, and generally behaving like bottom-feeding psychotics.”–Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly (contemporaneous)
“Gilliam lets the audience glimpse just enough of the world outside the hallucinatory Wonderland of Las Vegas to remind us exactly how hysterical and horrific our long, strange trip to the cusp of the 21st century has been.”–Michael O’Sullivan, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Terry Gilliam | Dreams: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – The Fear and Loathing page at the massive Gilliam fansite is a portal to a small book worth of interviews and opinion pieces about the film
Fearnloathing.com: Everything about the movie “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” – This fansite site has a dizzying amount of interviews with the cast and crew to pore through, as well as a few soundclips and trailers for the film
A Savage Journey: The Making of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS – Terry Gilliam gave many, many interviews promoting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; this conversation with David Morgan is one of the best, and includes a script excerpt for an unused ending
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: The New Cult Canon – Scott Tobias’s article encapsulates the appeal of the weird synergy between Thompson and Gilliam
FEAR AND LOATHING script analysis – David Morgan breaks down the differences between Alex Cox’ original script and Gilliam’s rewrite, and explains why Gilliam burnt his Writer’s Guild of America card
DVD INFO: As befits a bizarre film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has had a strange history on DVD. Since the movie was a failure in theaters, Universal did not invest too much in their original 1998 release, issuing a disc with a deleted scenes and a ten-minute behind-the-scenes featurette as the only extras. Sensing a cult film in the making, the Criterion Collection bought the distribution rights to the film in 2003 and issued a lavish 2-disc Special Edition (buy). Headlined by three separate commentary tracks—one from Gilliam, one by Depp and Del Toro, and one featuring Hunter Thompson himself—and an entire disc full of supplemental material on Thompson and the film. The popularity of the Criterion edition helped launch a reappraisal of the film, which had been almost universally panned by critics.
In 2006 it appeared that Universal realized they had made a mistake by under-marketing the film, and they re-issued their version of the movie—in the doomed HD DVD format. In 2010 they wised up and issued a Blu-ray (buy) with additional “Blu-ray live” features and D-Box motion simulation capabilities. Assuming that Universal had reacquired their rights from Criterion, many movie fans, including yours truly, purchased the Universal Blu-ray in 2010. We’d been had, however, as 2011 saw Criterion release their special edition on Blu-ray (buy)! Since the Criterion edition is clearly superior, the only reason to buy Universal’s competing Blu is to save money.
Fear and Loathing can also be rented or purchased digitally (rent on-Demand).