Looking back at Terry Gilliam’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

News Andrew Blair
4/18/2012 at 5:18AM

Our journey through the films of Terry Gilliam continues with the director’s 1998 adaptation of Hunter S Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas…

Compared with other Terry Gilliam films, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was made under no illusions that it would be a mainstream movie. As an adaptation of Hunter S Thompson's semi-autobiographical 1971-set novel, documenting both 60s counterculture ideals and the American dream in prose both woozy and impassioned, how could it be? This backdrop is set against the foreground of Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo's voracious ingestion of uppers, downers, screamers and laughers.

This book is the ramblings of a drug-addled loon on a bender, which touches on the declining condition of a country, a movement and a way of life. It is the only one of Thompson's oeuvre to be shelved in the fiction section. According to Johnny Depp, who has read the original notes that the story was based on, the reality of situation may have been even more extreme than the published account.

Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo are characters based on Thompson and his associate Oscar Zeta Acosta. Fear And Loathing (as I will now refer to it) is, unsurprisingly considering its source material and cinematic distribution, a cult movie that stands on its own within its director's niche of cult movies. Endorsed by Thompson, and featuring the kind of performance from Johnny Depp that many of us miss, its DVD release has seen it gain an audience outside of America, the country its cinema release was limited to.

But then, it is a very American film, set in a very particular time and in a city that embodies excess. For those of us who weren't young, let alone alive, in the 60s, it puts our experiences of idealism being crushed and floundering aimlessly into sharp relief. Bruce Robinson was at one point in line to direct, before he declined, but in its excessive consumption of drugs (although, of course, technically alcohol isn't a drug. It's a drink) and depiction of the death of the 60s era of peace and love, Fear and Loathing provides a more flailing, hallucinogenic counterpoint to Withnail & I.

When people say “X is like Y...on acid” they usually just mean that X is fairly over the top. They don't mean that it is actually like an acid trip. The structure of Fear And Loathing mirrors the initial euphoria and long, slow downers of a trip, with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini collaborating with Gilliam to produce an accurate filmic equivalent of the effects of each drug consumed. As a film, its technical side is excellent, with oppressive visuals achieved by a mix of unusual colour palettes, practical effects, and digital manipulation. How the look of the film was achieved on a relatively modest budget of around $19 million is impressive.

What makes the film a harder sell is that it does involve following around two men who are wasted. Initially, this is funny, and silly, and surreal. Quickly this fades into a nightmare of screaming, vomiting, and fear. It's a hard watch. More so than usual, dialogue is garbled, muttered, or just plain incomprehensible. It isn't trying to make the film easy for you. As a result it can divide opinion totally, either being a searingly accurate depiction of its source material, and of the realities of drug use, or it can be what other people on drugs can be like: loud, boring, and obnoxious.

So, what is there to look forward to on this journey?

Well, Gary Busey is in it. That's always nice. He's not in it for long, but he improvises one of the best lines. Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Katherine Helmond, Christina Ricci, Michael Peter Balzary, Harry Dean Stanton... the list of cameos is relentless. Perhaps, as the film underperformed at the box office, the appeal of a semi-legendary book's challenging film adaptation was over-estimated.

For Gilliam, coming from two popular and profitable films in a row, this marks something of a departure from his previous work. It isn't fantasy, science fiction, or straight drama, but it does contain some of the themes that frequently crop up in Gilliam's work: there is a lot in the film which may or may not have really happened, and a clash between idealism and authority.

Much of the film's visual style comes from the accompanying illustrations in the book by Ralph Steadman (most famously the font the title is written in), including the design on the t-shirt Tobey Maguire's hitchhiker is wearing. Visually, Fear And Loathing is distinct from Gilliam’s usual magical realism, opting instead for a lurching, monstrous Tex Avery feel, hence the continual presence of a lolling cigarette in Depp's mouth. Aspects of it irked Thompson, and fans of his work, but by and large the ideas and lines added to the film by its cast and crew work well and complement the events of the book.

Gilliam complained that the marketing for the film made it look like a wacky comedy, but is fine with the idea of its content appalling people. Certainly, anyone who went in expecting a film completely like the trailer (which barely hints at the grimness contained within) would be disappointed and possibly appalled. It's a polarising end product, and deliberately so. Sometimes making a film with little mainstream appeal after your most successful movie works (the Coens' Burn After Reading is great, but if it had been made before No Country For Old Men, would it have been as successful?) but Fear And Loathing is an R-rated movie which wears its darkness on its sleeve, and dares you to not like it.

Had The Man Who Killed Don Quixote not been doomed from the outset, like Sean Bean in any fantasy film, making one movie like this may not have been a problem. As it stands, Gilliam's reputation as a disaster-monger was furthered.

Having Fear And Loathing as his last full length work until 2005 might not have helped this, as the (relatively, for filmmaking anyway) brave choices involved would have been vindicated had Gilliam followed it up with a more mainstream (relatively, for Gilliam anyway) film.

Instead, Fear And Loathing stood as another film that, even more than usual, divided critics, didn't make its money back again, and took on a longer legacy than was intended.

You can read our look back at Twelve Monkeys here.

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