Billed as “a movie based on the twisted legend of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson” and inspired by his Rolling Stone article "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat" about attorney, activist, and author Oscar Acosta, Where the Buffalo Roam tells of their friendship and how their paths diverged, with Bill Murray starring as the good doctor and Peter Coyle playing Acosta stand-in, Carl Lazlo. The 1980 cult film is being released by Shout Select (#21), but its audience will likely continue to be limited to Thompson fans.
Where the Buffalo Roam opens with Hunter typing away in his snow-covered Aspen, Colorado cabin. A machine (what HST fans will know as “the mojo wire”) buzzes, looking for an article that he owes to Blast Magazine (standing in for Rolling Stone). Hunter responds by shooting it into pieces. The camera moves in as Hunter reveals the article he is working on is about Lazlo.
Cut to San Francisco 1968, with the Red Shark, Hunter's convertible, haphazardly parked outside a hospital. Hunter has checked in for exhaustion, but it's just an excuse while he parties within the bizarre Wonderland he has created for himself, hiding from magazine publisher Jann Wenner stand-in Marty Lewis (Bruno Kirby), who is looking for the cover story that's due in 19 hours. Lazlo escorts Hunter to the courthouse to cover his clients, young adults who have been hassled and arrested by the San Francisco police because of marijuana.
The story jumps to Los Angeles 1972, the location of Super Bowl VI (Miami vs. Dallas). Hunter keeps losing track of days, so it wouldn't be a surprise if he missed the big game he is there to cover, which worries Marty. After being apart for three years, Lazlo shows up in need of Hunter's services again. This time to drum up support for his gun-running work with freedom fighters from some unnamed Latin American country. Lazlo has given up fighting within the system as an attorney and is now fighting to bring change from the outside. Hunter is an adrenaline junkie, so he likes danger, but Lazlo and his customers seem most likely leading followers to a jail cell or a casket.
On the '72 U.S. Presidential campaign trail, Hunter is following an unnamed Candidate, which is clearly Nixon. His negative articles get him kicked off the journalists' plane and sent to travel with the technicians, a wild group of party animals, so it's not a punishment for Hunter. He meets Harris (René Auberjonois) from the Washington Post, and is able to switch credentials, which leads to access to the Candidate. In his inimitable style, he asks what the Candidate thinks about the little guy, and the answer is why he's despised by Hunter and much of the youth at the era. Inexplicably, Lazlo shows up on the press plane. No longer fighting against the system, he is now looking to drop out of it. He has a plan for paradise south of the border and expects Hunter to join him.
As a long-time fan of Thompson's writing, I enjoyed seeing his work come to life, particularly through Murray who gets Thompson's cadence down. However, for those with no attachment to the author or the views of the main characters, the film might have little to offer. They are dope fiends with Lazlo, a '60s radical caricature that serves to show the journey many of his kind made rather than being a character whose motivations are understood. Also, it would have made more sense to have Lazlo played by a Hispanic actor. The story is rather anti-climactic with Hunter already having taken his own path, so dropping out with Lazlo couldn't have been an option.
While it is presented in a rather straightforward manner, the film misses what Thompson excelled at. His writing demonstrated a great command of the language of the medium, which is words, but first-time director Art Linson showed no equal command of his medium. The camera, cinematography, and editing are all perfunctory. There's no sense of what Gonzo journalism was all about, so instead of a meaningful look at Acosta or the late '60s/early '70s, the film delivers a stoner comedy. And while there are laughs to be had, the notion that it should have been much more is slightly deflating.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. In the opening scene, the colors come through in bright hues as seen in Hunter's orange vest and the U.S. Flag, which stand out against his wood-paneled office, and in his hospital room. Whites are bright, and blacks are solid. Grain is apparent, and increases during low-lit scenes of the opening, winter sky and Lazlo's jail cell. The video offers sharp details, such as textures on clothing and buildings.
The audio comes in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Fans will be happy to know that Shout Factory offers the original music soundtrack. Young's score and the classic rock songs have good fidelity, but aren't overwhelming. Dialogue is clear, although Murray's Hunter is a tad guttural, which can be tough to make out at moments for those not familiar with it.
Inventing the Buffalo: Interview with Screenwriter John Kaye (42 min) - Kaye spent 10 days with Thompson. He talks of working on the script and also the set for first month. He offers honest assessments and has a fantastic story about doing cocaine with Thompson and author Dennis Murphy. The theatrical trailer (3 min) is included.
Where the Buffalo Roam is an enjoyable excursion into the world of Hunter S. Thompson, but the film never gets weird enough for me. Thankfully, Shout Select has brought the film to Blu-ray with a pleasing picture and a restored soundtrack.