First appearing in the pages of Rolling Stone, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas details the drug-fueled adventures of journalist Raoul Duke and attorney Dr. Gonzo as they search in the unlikeliest of cities for the American Dream, which the ’60s counterculture failed to deliver. Thompson’s captivating manner of writing, considered gonzo journalism by many though Thompson thought the book was a failed experiment in that style, is what makes Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a seminal piece of literature.
The book floundered in Hollywood over the years with different people trying to adapt it to the screen. Legend has it previous attempts were by directors Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone and actors considered to play Duke and Gonzo respectively were Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando as well as Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. A film was finally created at the end of the ’90s with Terry Gilliam at the helm and Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro in the leads.
The film opens with the same Samuel Johnson quote as the book, “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man,” which if remembered during their wasted hijinks should make clear this isn’t a comedic drug movie like those of Cheech & Chong or Harold and Kumar. No, the drugs ingested here are taken to lose one’s self in order to escape the ego and potentially enlighten, but the results are rarely, if ever, pleasant.
After a montage of news clips about civil rights and the Vietnam War establish the time of the book, 1971, has been kept, the film cuts to Duke (Depp) and Gonzo (Del Toro) “somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold,” heading to Vegas in a large red convertible so Duke can cover the Mint 400 Race and later The District Attorneys Convention of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. As the film progresses, Duke and Gonzo’s constant drug use decreases their mental stability and increases their paranoia. They create a wake of chaos that catches up many who cross their path and results in the destruction of a couple hotel rooms.
As a fan of the book, it is a pleasure to see Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas brought to life. Gilliam’s visual style works extremely well, brought to fruition by his talented crew, to evoke the hallucinatory and addled mindset of the characters. Depp spent time living with Thompson in order to properly infuse Duke with Thompson’s characteristics. While enjoyable and rewatchable, the movie unfortunately comes up short because the screenplay doesn’t properly reveal the characters’ motivations or the book’s themes, which Thompson’s evocative prose did so brilliantly. Those who haven’t read the book will likely be at a loss, but still it’s an impressive spectacle of filmmaking.
The video has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. Gilliam makes great use of many colors and the wild bright hues used are well rendered. Blacks are strong and contribute to a good contrast. Detail is sharp, such as the scales on the lounge lizards. The picture looks clean and has a natural amount of grain.
The audio comes in DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0. On the 5.1 track, the dialogue is clear though it may take the opening scene to acclimate to Depp’s vocal affectation. The surrounds offer casino ambiance, and the bats in the desert can be heard moving through the system as they screech by Duke. The subwoofer offers good bass support when called upon, such as engine roars during the Mint 400 and the rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack.
The Criterion Collection offers a great many supplements that will delight fans of both Gilliam and Thompson.
There are three commentary tracks. Gilliam performs one and his infectious enjoyment of the film and his engaging explanations about the creative decisions make it very compelling. The second track features Depp, Del Toro, and producer Laila Nabulsi recorded separately and edited together. The actors talk about their processes and working on the production. Nabulsi spent 10 years working to get film made and reveals some information about the journey. The last finds Thompson, his assistant/future wife Anita, and Nabulsi on Owl Farm at about midnight. This one is just for fans of Thompson, who doesn’t care for parts of the film and makes his feelings clearly known. He also makes loud noises and screeches at times, some likely due to inhaling something. What’s funny is when he doesn’t like something that is to be pointed out isn’t in the movie. The track finds him doing things like taking a call from Douglas Brinkley, walking off and firing a gun, and placing calls to Depp and Del Toro. But it’s not all silliness as Nabulsi corrals him at times to offer praise and fair criticisms.
The supplements are then broken down into “The Film” and “The Source.”
Under “The Film,” there are three “Deleted Scenes” (1080i, 11 min) – There are three deleted scenes from a workprint with optional commentary by Gilliam, who gives a sense of why they were cut. Wish there had been an option to see them all together rather than having to go back in through menu. Galleries show Terry Gilliam’s “Storyboards” (HD), “Production Designs” (HD)done under direction of production designer Alex McDowell, and a”Stills Gallery” (HD) featuring work of set photographer Peter Mountain.
”Depp-Thompson Correspondence” (1080i, 14 min)is revealed through video as Depp reads letters he and Thompson each other. “Hunter Goes to Hollywood” (1080i, 11 min) shows a clip from Wayne Ewing’s Breakfast with Hunter when Thompson shot his cameo.
”Not the Screenplay” deals with the screenplay credits. “Audio Discussion of WGA Dispute” (17 min) finds Terry Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni with Nabulsi edited in talking about the odd ruling the WGA made that gave Tod Davies and Alex Cox, who had written a script that Cox was going to direct before he was let go and Gilliam was brought in, credit for the screenplay, though they claim they used no part of that previous script. “A Dress Pattern (1080i, 1 min)” was a short film Gilliam made when he thought he was not going to receive credit for the screenplay.
”A Study in Marketing” (1080i, 10 min) looks at the trailer and TV spots. The former has an optional commentary by Gilliam who is rightly annoyed that the marketing campaign made the film look like a fun, drug-taking romp in Vegas.
”The Source” supplements are a great collection for Thompson fans. “Oscar Zeta Acosta: Dr. Gonzo” has three components. “Biographical Photo Essay” (HD) is about Oscar Zeta Acosta, written by his son Marco. “The Revolt of the Cockroach People” (1080i, 30 min) shows Oscar Acosta at Festival de Flor y Canto in 1974 at USC as he reads a chapter from his novel. “Thompson on Acosta” (8 min) is audio of Thompson reading the intro he wrote for the 1989 reissue of Acosta’s books.
”Ralph Steadman Art Gallery” (HD)shows Steadman’s iconic work that relates to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from originals drawings that accompanied the articles in Rolling Stone to art created in for the film that wasn’t used.
”Breakdown on Paradise Boulevard” (8 min) is an excerpt from the 1996 spoken word adaptation of the book with Jim Jarmusch as Duke, Maury Chaykin as Gonzo, and in a great bit of casting Jann Werner as the editor. This scene of them ordering tacos and chatting up the restaurant help is not in the film.
”Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood” (1080i, 50 min)is an installment of the British TV program Omnibus with the less accurate title “Fear and Loathing in Gonzovision.” In a sit-down interview at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado, Thompson, in between drinks, puffs, snorts, and the shooting of guns, bemoans how the myth has affected his work because he can’t hide in background yet he seems oblivious to his perpetuation of the myth. The cameras follow Thompson and Steadman as they head to Hollywood to talk to people about the making of a film from his work, which likely became Where the Buffalo Roam starring Bill Murray, who is seen in this episode. The episode ends with Thompson planning to erect a structure to shot his ashes over his property, which he eventually did as I can attest to as one who witnessed it.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by the Criterion Collection is highly recommend for Thompson fans and mildly recommend for Gilliam fans. The bleakness of the story may be too much for some, which is unfortunate because there is a lot of great work on display that is well worth seeing.