Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Editor’s Notes: The following review marks the start of Jaime’s bi-weekly Criterion review series where he will explore the depths of the Criterion Collection.
Before I even know where I’m going next on my Criterion journey, I find myself driving in the desert, in a red top convertible. And I hear screeching in the sky. My god…I’m in bat country.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, from beloved writer and doctor of gonzo journalism Hunter S. Thompson, tells a story without even having a story. Raul Duke and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (brilliantly played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) travel to Vegas on an assignment: cover the Mint 400 racing competition. Seems easy enough. Except they’re going to do the whole thing while being on nearly every drug known to man, and that’s not an understatement. The film shows the two just trying to get through this and another assignment while being in a city that is truly unforgiving to its drug-using visitors.
While Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could have been made with other filmmakers, at a much cheaper markup, but it wasn’t. Terry Gilliam basically went hardcore with his approach, and essentially made every penny count.
I’ve seen this film a few times already, but it had been a while since my last visit. I remember the Johnny Depp giving one of the best performances of his career here; the definition of dedication and gusto. But I wanted to be reminded of more. One of the advantages of going down a familiar path is finding new things after multiple viewings. Maybe even get a better grasp on what you’re watching. For those familiar with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, finding new things in that film can act out almost like a drinking game. This particular reviewing, though, is the one I’ll always be thankful for. Why? Because it’s the viewing that made me fully realize that this film functions as well as it does without an actual plot. In fact, really…truly think of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as this: this is a film that is made out entirely and proudly of moments.
The general outline is there. Two morally bankrupt men going to Vegas to cover one sporting event, and a police event, one after the other. That’s it. There’s no underlying message of redemption, or something to fix or solve, nor is it an actual characteristic study of said moral bankruptcy. All the elements that make a film survive, including having an story, are absent here. Watching this, watching each event play out, made my jaw almost drop with this realization. I considered it an ultimate tequila shot to my brain. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a mess constructed out of the moving parts that inspire mayhem. Mayhem itself would take the form of one the brainchilds of Ralph Steadman (who designed, among other things, the ridiculously cool cover art for the dvd/blu release), and it would use this film as a motivational tool to get itself pumped for the day. You know, how you and I would probably go to self-help tapes for that? It’s for this reason that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of the sexites messes I’ve ever witnessed.
Although I had trouble finding the notes, I remember hearing way back when that up until Gilliam got his hands on it, this film was not only in development hell, but it was trying to be made for a considerably low budget. I think of that nugget of knowledge, and then immediately I connect that to the scene where Duke and Dr. Gonzo first check into hotel, for the first event. Depp is heavily feeling the effects of the “sunshine acid” he took a few minutes ago, and while he’s waiting for Gonzo, he starts to imagine the lounge area he’s in being covered with some sort of strange liquid (“Order some golf shoes…or else we’ll never make it out of this place alive!”) and then bam—out of nowhere, everyone but him and Gonzo are these giant lizards. Giant lizards that start to have a blood-soaked orgy. It’s a scene that’s fantastical, gross and admirable all at the same time. Think about it, though. Gilliam and crew didn’t have to go all out like that. The lizards looked great (courtesy of makeup effects legend Rob Bottin) and it’s a testament to the madness, but was it necessary? I read up that the budget was around $19 million. $19 million for a film with no story, no marketable aspects (yes…it did bomb at the box office) and at the time, no truly huge stars.
Gilliam worked a magic that can rarely be captured, and with the help of Depp and Del Toro giving some of the best performances of their careers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been brought to us in the method that suits the source.
While Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could have been made with other filmmakers, at a much cheaper markup, but it wasn’t. Terry Gilliam basically went hardcore with his approach, and essentially made every penny count. The stories about the making of this film can be whatever they want, but the admiration for it must always be present. There are plenty of Gilliam fans in the world (myself included) that can name their favorites, and of course opinions can & should vary, but when you think about it, it would be a crime to not list this film among the top; the accomplishment factor alone gives it that boost. After taking over the job from the last hired director Alex Cox (Repo Man), Gilliam used his own co-written script along with Cox’s co-written script (long story on that battle, look it up), and the result feels like he literally took the best moments from both scripts and scrapbooked this film. As I mentioned earlier, this film has no actual story. so to think that the copy and paste method Gilliam incorporates here isn’t that wild to believe. And really, it’s insane to think a movie could do something as rebellious as that and get away with it. But no. Gilliam worked a magic that can rarely be captured, and with the help of Depp and Del Toro giving some of the best performances of their careers, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been brought to us in the method that suits the source.
Showcasing two characters as rotten as Duke and Gonzo without giving them the path of eventual righteousness could be looked that as brave filmmaking. The way Gilliam treats it, though, is just another walk in the park. That’s another thing I appreciated about taking this familiar trip. A lot can be discussed on how crazy it is, how the wild things that were done in the film, and so on and so forth. But this new look was not only my favorite one yet, but for me, it all boiled down to an absolute accomplishment. Gilliam and company, including excellent turnouts from editor Lesley Walker (The Fisher King) and cinematographer Nicola Pecorini (The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus), did something marvelous here, and they provided one of the best examples of making of classic film without even a hint of traditional filmmaking. In the end, that’s what has to be the beacon of: a film on the brink of insanity, while being as sane as possible about its own journey.
Leaving behind Vegas, and my first-but-surely-not-to-be-the-last visit with Gilliam on my Criterion journey was a blast. As I’m driving through the night sky, I pull over my car and sit in silence for a minute. Where to next? Then I find myself looking up at the night sky, thinking of space, and smiling.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a sexy, proud mess that’s also not a mess at the same time. It’s hard to imagine any other filmmaker besides Terry Gilliam making sense of that last sentence.