Criterion // 1998 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 25th, 2011
If there was a trip to be taken, they were there.
"The ether was wearing off. The acid was long gone. But the mescaline was running strong. Good mescaline comes on slow. The first hour is all waiting. Then about halfway through the second hour, you start cursing the creep who burned you because nothing's happening. And then -- ZANG!"
The year is 1971. Journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp, Alice in Wonderland) has been given the task of covering a motorcycle race in Las Vegas. That article will never be written, as Raoul and his Samoan attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benecio Del Toro, The Usual Suspects) are busy working their way through a briefcase loaded with marijuana, mescaline, ether, cocaine, acid, and other substances (not to mention a generous supply of alcohol). Stumbling through the neon city while on a sustained bad trip, Raoul reflects on the '60s, drugs and his life with as much clarity as his overloaded mind will permit.
Despite the fact that Hunter S. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream was frequently referred to as "unfilmable," quite a few notable names expressed interest in bringing the book to the big screen over the years. The middling Art Linson film Where the Buffalo Roam (starring Bill Murray in the Thompson role) borrowed certain passages from the book, but it could hardly be called a proper adaptation. In the years that followed, Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone tried and failed to get their own versions of the novel off the ground, and actors like John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, John Malkovich, John Cusack, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, and others were considered for the lead roles at various points. At long last, Alex Cox managed to get started with an adaptation starring Johnny Depp and Benecio Del Toro, but eventually left the project due to creative differences or was fired (depending on which variation on that particular story you happen to hear). Finally, director Terry Gilliam was brought onboard. Despite having no small amount of difficulty in getting the film to the finish line (including a particularly tough fight over who would receive screenplay credit), Gilliam finally managed to turn in a completely no-holds-barred Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Alas, the critical reaction was mixed at best, with many noted critics ripping into the film as a miserable adaptation of a great book (The New York Times wrote that it didn't "begin to match the surreal ferocity of the author's language," while Roger Ebert called it, "a one-joke movie, if it had one joke"). Few critics were kind to the film, and those who did like it had plenty of reservations. The novel also had its fair share of detractors upon its release, but over time it has grown to be regarded as a significant piece of American literature. Likewise, in recent years the film has become increasingly accepted as a significant piece of American cinema (an argument Judge Bill Gibron makes quite eloquently in his review of the 2002 Criterion DVD release).
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may not be a particularly pleasant cinematic experience -- imagine one of those 30-second movie montages depicting a character's drug-fueled low point multiplied in intensity and stretched out over two hours -- but it's certainly an unforgettable one. Gilliam specifically set out to make a film that would work brilliantly or not at all; injecting a cinematic overdose of everything in his briefcase directly into the viewer's eyeball. The drug trip (sustained over the period of several days, though precisely how many is hard to keep track of) has its highs and lows (well, make that lows and really lows as far as Raoul and Dr. Gonzo are concerned), but it never comes to a stop. It effectively immerses the viewer in the fractured brains of its protagonists over the course of its two-hour running time, careening recklessly between almost unbearable physical misery (everything seems to be coated in crusty green-and-yellow vomit by the third act) and startling moments of clarity.
The endless hallucinatory depravity makes the slivers of insight all the more poignant, as Raoul desperately flings his hands at his typewriter or fumbles for his tape recorder in an attempt to preserve what he knows is a short-lived moment. One of Thompson's gifts was his ability to remain insightful even as he lost control of his senses; to live in the moment and regard his behavior from a distance simultaneously. He captures these sensations with a mad beauty; delivering universal truths through an intensely personal lens. There are striking shades of Charlie Sheen in lines like, "There was madness in any direction, at any hour. You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning." Still, it's the howls of pain that really resonate: "What (Timothy) Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create -- a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody -- or at least some force -- is tending the light at the end of the tunnel." That Gilliam created a film worthy of such writing is no small achievement.
As far as I'm concerned, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas marks a turning point in the career of actor Johnny Depp. Sure, he had delivered plenty of excellent performances in previous films and had challenged himself a great deal artistically, but the larger-than-life, deliciously unpredictable eccentricity that has become his trademark (occasionally for worse, but mostly for better) has its roots in this film. Depp's performance is unhinged and yet intensely focused; Raoul clings to his own fractured journalistic integrity even as his perception of reality slips away from him. Throughout the film, Depp constantly carries a wide-eyed look (often behind bug-eye shades) which suggests that he's checking to see if Satan's arrived yet. Benecio Del Toro's performance is equally excellent, though he's given the task of providing manic counterpoint in the background while Depp plugs away in the foreground. Sporting a fearlessly unflattering pot belly and amusingly continuing to advise Depp, "as your attorney" no matter how wrecked he gets, Del Toro commits to the role with admirable gusto. To say that both men deliver some of the most unhinged work of their respective careers is an understatement; this is a film in which Gary Busey seems restrained in contrast.
I haven't seen the previous hi-def transfers for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (it was released on HD-DVD and Blu-ray before this fancy Criterion edition made it to hi-def), but it sure looks terrific. Boasting a very strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer, one really begins to appreciate the immense level of detail (icky as it may be at times) in the film's design. Background detail and facial detail are excellent throughout, blacks are rich and inky and flesh tones are warm and natural. Those who have seen the previous Universal Blu-ray claim that the colors have been toned down a bit (to positive effect) and that numerous flecks and scratches have been cleaned up. The audio is also excellent, as Gilliam drowns the viewer in a soundscape of nightmarish sound design, iconic '60s music (everything from Tom Jones to The Rolling Stones to Frank Sinatra) and dialogue which is alternately mumbled and shouted at various points.
The fantastic supplemental package offered on Criterion's previous release of the film has been recycled for this release, and it's worth the many hours of investment required to sit through it all: three fantastic audio commentaries (one with Gilliam, one with Depp & Del Toro and one with Thompson), some deleted scenes (with optional Gilliam commentary), a handful of Thompson correspondence read on-camera by Depp (14 minutes), a featurette entitled "Hunter Thompson Goes to Hollywood" (10 minutes), a fascinating audio conversation detailing the screenplay credit controversy featuring Gilliam, co-writer Tony Grisoni and producer Laila Nabulsi (17 minutes), a short film by Gilliam called "A Dress Pattern" (with optional Gilliam commentary), a video essay spotlighting the real-life Dr. Gonzo, Oscar Zeta Acosta (30 minutes), an interview with Thompson on Acosta (8 minutes), an audio excerpt from the book featuring Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin (8 minutes), an archival documentary on Thompson and Acosta called "Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood" (51 minutes), some storyboards, a Ralph Steadman art gallery, production design photos, a stills gallery, a gallery of TV spots and a booklet featuring the writings of Thompson plus an analysis of the film from J. Hoberman.
This movie can be exceptionally difficult to sit through. If you're in the wrong mood or aren't ready to fully commit yourself to what the film has to offer, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may well deliver a miserable two hours. Honestly, some viewers are going to feel that way about the film regardless of what mood they're in. I can certainly understand that, as this is unquestionably an extreme experience which can prove nauseating even if you recognize its virtues.
Terry Gilliam's fever dream is about as spot-on a cinematic Thompson adaptation as we're ever likely to see. Regardless of how you feel about the film, the Criterion Blu-ray offers tons of cool extras which more than justify a purchase.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Audio Features
* Video Essay
* Short Film
* TV Spots