Gilliam wanted to capture a moment in time, but for much of the cult film’s misguided defenders, he merely glorified it.
After the critical and commercial success of his previous two features, Terry Gilliam wound up taking over for Repo Man director Alex Cox and helming Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the infamous book by Hunter S. Thompson. It turns out Gilliam’s peculiar visual flair was perfect for depicting the wanton drug lust of Thompson’s gonzo journalism, but it was less suited for his own artistic aims with this adaptation. He wanted to capture a moment in time, but for much of the cult film’s misguided defenders, he merely glorified it.
Set in 1971, the film follows Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), Thompson’s alter-ego, and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), on a particularly nasty bender in Las Vegas. Ostensibly, Duke is there to write about a motorcycle race sponsored by a hotel, but both men abuse the opportunity as an excuse to get high as hell and escape from the political climate of the time. Inasmuch as Fear and Loathing has a plot, it’s pretty one-note. Duke and Gonzo drink, smoke and ingest all manner of chemical additives. They have difficulty functioning and get into an exponentially dangerous escalation of hijinks. What makes it unique is the two lead performances and Gilliam’s gift for distilling mania.
Depp, an otherwise overrated performer, delivered one of his finest turns as Duke. Perfectly dramatizing Thompson’s mannerisms and speech patterns, Depp’s Duke possesses a musical rhythm that makes the film’s voiceover narration feel like a score. Alongside Del Toro, he exemplifies a selfless kind of acting, one where the performers legitimately disappear inside their grand personas. But the performances, sterling though they may be, function best inside the twisted mirror world Gilliam has realized on screen.
His usual arsenal of canted angles, woozy camera movement and strange special effects congeal into a brutally effective visual language for making the audience feel as uneasy and paranoid as the protagonists. Few films more quickly and effectively establish a tone than the first 10 minutes of Fear and Loathing, with the instantly iconic narration and Gilliam’s hellscape vision of the desert. From those opening moments, Gilliam ensures that the world surrounding Duke and Gonzo appears as off-kilter and untrustworthy as it must have felt from inside their drug ravaged meat cages.
But if he thought he was capably saying something profound about the excesses of drug culture, about this unique point in time where a generation realizes they’ve collectively gone too far, he missed the mark. Discerning viewers will surely make it to the film’s depressing conclusion, especially in the infamous diner scene, and see through the slapstick of Duke and Gonzo’s self-destruction to the rotten core of the film’s message. But those aren’t the people who’ve kept this box office flop alive on home video for decades.
Collegiate cinephiles and burnouts the world over still spin this disc as the perfect background viewing for getting fucked up and butchering an impression of Depp’s Duke. It’s the preferred Netflix & Chill title for drug addled bros to make dumb jokes about “bat country” while missing the point entirely. In that regard, it’s like Fight Club for people who use Ralph Steadman art for their smartphone’s wallpaper.
Who ultimately champions his films is not entirely Gilliam’s fault. Surely, when he worked on Monty Python and the Holy Grail he had no idea it’d become a staple at drama-club cast parties for ages to come. But his vision for Thompson’s world hews too closely to the celebratory. The majority of the film plays things for laughs in a way that undercuts the malice and menace of its final scenes. What should be a moral gut punch feels like too little, too late.
That doesn’t mark Fear and Loathing as a failure, necessarily, but it does detract from its standing in Gilliam’s filmography. The film is still wildly entertaining and one of the more watchable efforts he’s ever made. It just doesn’t reach its considerable potential.