Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Film Critique

...Get in...
...Get in...

We were somewhere near Barstow, on the edge of the desert...

The opening lines of the 1971 composition, penned by Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, have kept readers entranced since its release. However, it has been quite some time since it was written and published, and it was time to reacquaint old fans and to introduce new. Thus set out a select group of people to push production of the novel into film form.

I suppose we can largely blame Depp, who being the star, was also considered close to the late Doctor of Gonzo. There is much he lends to the tone of this film, and it's very obvious that he spent much time developing his caricature of Thompson's "Raul Duke". Benicio Del Toro offers up much to be pleased with as well with a very well accomplished role as Thompson's psychopathic attorney.

This book has been allegedly tossed about for concepts of filming for quite some time now. Various directors and actors have tried here and there to get a "Fear and Loathing" film produced. Up until 1998, however, that just never quite happened. In fact, it could [and possibly should] be argued that it's the generation created by the generation that framed this book that is to blame. Perhaps it was time for the children of America, born in the late 60s to late 70s, to be greeted with literature they were just too young to fully grasp back when it actually happened.

I also think the 80's prolonged the release of anything related to Dr. Thompson. We were full-on into trickle down capitalism, hard pressed into the drug wars, and don't even start with the godless commies. No, the 80's was a time to forget about Dr. Thompson's morbid trek thru the heart of the darkening American Dream.

But then Reagan's time ran out, and the children of the boomers (now entering early adulthood, starting families, etc.) were faced with the changing landscape of the 90's.

I feel like the stage was set very appropriately for this film. It's a piece of culture of an era that was very controversial. People died, wars raged on, civil rights were literally fought over, and when it was all done and the dust settled...

It's as if nothing even happened. The 80's and 90's seemed to set out to erase the two decades of progress and change that had occurred before it. It's authors like Thompson who etched into history an indelible mark, one that shouldn't be erased. We should remember the apathy of those who stayed here while countless died needlessly in Vietnam, especially the politicians.

Now, "Fear and Loathing" isn't teaching any lessons overtly here, and the political undertones are just that--undertones. The main focus of this work, in the vast opinion of literary criticism, is that there isn't a focus. The point to have no point, so to speak. It's a stream-of-consciousness experiment with first person journalism and a lot of substance abuse.

We can't stop here, this is bat country!

I feel like the vast majority of negative criticism this film has received results from the lack of experience most people have in reference to illicit drug use. I'm not talking about using needles, I do think that most people cannot fathom injection methods being exercised upon themselves, by themselves or someone equally as amateurish.

No, we're thus refraining from highlighting use of crack, meth, heroin, or other [outdated] common drugs once used, like opium. Cocaine isn't something that I feel defines this film, though it's obvious that the drug has its influences here.

When entering Thompson's world, one almost exclusively need look little further than psychedelic drugs. The film makes frequent reference to this class of drug, focusing on three types over the course of the film: acid [LSD]. mescaline [peyote], and adrenochrome. The final of the three, though technically not classed as a psychedelic, still exhibits similar side effects and symptoms to the other two drugs.

This was the seventies, and Thompson spends little time wasted crying about it. There is a beautiful little soliloquy halfway into the film, and I do believe it's the best five minutes in nonfiction cinema history (there are other competitors, but honestly, the emotional depth to this speech is pretty unreal). Johnny Depp seriously spent time, as I stated earlier, in capturing the antics of his character. I don't think that it's better executed than when he gets to ramble on his own, and in the select areas of the film where that is the focus are the same areas that most will remember fondly.

It's the darkness of this film that likely will turn away the uninitiated. To those unfamiliar with psychedelics, this movie is confusing and frustrating and can never break past the status of a nightmarish experience. Even worse, the behavior of both main characters cannot be explained by the sober or the inexperienced. Therefore, this film is mostly lost on those who haven't done much beyond smoke a cigarette or drink a beer in their lifetime.

This is Death Valley

The psychedelic escapades begin to escalate on the strip, where the two absurd gentlemen cavort onto a sidewalk with their fire-engine red convertible to find that they've stumbled onto a live show of Debbie Reynolds. After exiting the "time capsule", they slide on down to Bazooko's Casino Circus.

Yes, it really is as crazy as it sounds.

Using the "devil ether" to mimic the activities of a village drunk, they get in. Inside, they see all manner of madness, from clowns to chimpanzees. There's even a disappearing midget.

Much of these visualizations are as much a part of the genius of Terry Gilliam as they are Thompson's and Acosta's. Gilliam is that rare director, that [much like Depp] can instill a sense of importance, immediacy, and even wonder to the most mundane of situations.

"Fear and Loathing" is definitely an exercise in hedonistic excess, but without a good vision behind the work, the film would have been doomed from the beginning. Perhaps this has been what has plagued the work for decades, where it had been juggled off and on by other notable directors. It needed a magical combination, and it would appear as if the trio of Gilliam-Depp-Del Toro was the magic button necessary to green light its production.

The film features a plethora of cameo appearances as well, and it's wholly enjoyable to point them out as they appear. Some cameos are far more noticeable than others, but it's not until the second half of the film that we're indulged with some of the more memorable moments they offer.

The film progresses past the first binge to the second, where Duke returns to Vegas with a vengeance. Here, he is witness to a convention of "a thousand ranking cops", the preternatural courtship of Dr. Gonzo and Lucy, and my personal favorite: viewing of the dope propaganda video.

The film obviously cuts out moments from the book and fails to include them in the film, which is brilliant for a variety of reasons. First, it's important to not inundate viewers with too much stimulation, and this film is already on the verge of being a hyperstimulant. Second, we now live in a generation of perpetual illiterates who mostly understand book reading to equate to a rectangular screen with scrollable words, books themselves becoming a thing of the past. Third, and finally, the book just has so much going on in it, and that lends itself wonderfully to the written word...but becomes muddled and fuzzy as the movie progresses. What I feel the team behind this movie were trying to accomplish was the highlights of the book with as much accuracy and personality infused into it as possible.

We're left with a dizzying final act as a result, and I think this is where the movie actually loses most of its momentum and message, and that's a shame.

"I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo, and someone was giving booze to these goddamned things!"
"I was right in the middle of a fucking reptile zoo, and someone was giving booze to these goddamned things!"

Where the film fails in the second act, it also succeeds [sometimes]. For instance, while the general cop scenes are boring, the dope video is stellar. Lucy, played by Christina Ricci, is a cardboard character here, but her occasional reappearance evokes some of the most humorous antics from the two main characters.

The heaviest scene in the film is easily the one that features the diner and its owner. Personally, I don't care much for it. Maybe it just feels too dark. I also feel that it's inconsistent with the flow of the rest of the film, except the elevator scene. It's jarring in its placement [perhaps the intention], and overall it doesn't improve our perception of the assumed protagonists.

Therefore, I rate the first half of the film very favorably. It's possibly the most quotable, fun, and trippy hour and fifteen you'll spend with friends in front of the telly. Soundtrack to this portion of the film includes all sorts of excellent music, and some not-so-excellent, but all the more part of the fun.

The second half of the film is where it loses steam, but never dips into total disappointment until, say. sometime in the final twenty minutes.

Highlights include Depp's interpretation(s) of Thompson's touching speeches and monologues that mark the end of each act of the film. Each time he dives into the material, you can't help but well up a little.

A+ : act one
C+ : act two
A : soundtrack

Final grade: A-

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Comments 2 comments

Fullerman5000 profile image

Fullerman5000 2 years ago from Louisiana, USA

I still think this is Johnny Depp's best role to date. This movie is crazy and all over the place, and that is why I love this film so much. Great acting all around. You get to mind trip without having to take any drugs when watching this film. Great critique.


t.keeley profile image

t.keeley 2 years ago from Seattle, WA Author

Hands down my favorite Depp role, easily. I can't objectively state that it's his BEST role overall, but since he had to mimic the great late Doctor, I think it's a difficult bill to complete. Del Toro also did very well, sometimes during the film I feel he actually out acts Depp, but they both go back and forth so much that it's a very difficult comparison to draw.

This is one of those films that is awesome in about every way you receive it: with/without friends, stoned/not stoned, bored/wried, etc.

Regardless of mood, substances, or people around me, it is an enjoyable experience. As for a "party film" status, it definitely is far better than most of the ones suggested while I'm around, that's for sure.

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