Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a frenetic 90s film that grew the star power of Johnny Depp and revitalized the myth of a young Hunter S. Thompson, who first became famous in the 60s and 70s for living the philosophy of Gonzo journalism on assignments for Rolling Stone.
I believe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was the first Criterion I bought. I likely paid something ridiculous for it, somewhere around 65 Canadian dollars. Back then, Criterion DVDs were rarely below retail price in physical music/video stores that organized the Criterion Collection as a specialty section at the end of an aisle.
I have seen this film dozens of times, but watching it again in 2022 enabled me to see clearly that my enjoyment of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has been declining to zero. Further from the 1990s and its library of hyper films — examples include: Trainspotting; Run, Lola, Run; Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels — Fear and Loathing has lost the formal magic that disguised its weak critique of 1970s America. This loss does not make Fear and Loathing a poor quality film. The performances of Depp and Benecio Del Toro, who plays Thompson’s lawyer, impressively accelerate to ridiculous levels in scenes that need to be even wilder than before. Gilliam’s visual style, particularly his use of wide-angle shots, is also perfect for a story of two people who are never sober. Nevertheless, Fear and Loathing has little critical force. If you look closely, it pulls a lot of its punches.
The Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing has rejected the American Dream with drug abuse, quirky social behavior and a broad hatred of political moralizing, whether done by the conservative Right or the hippie Left. The character’s perspective is also given through one of Depp’s voice-over monologues, which, taken from the book, explains how the nihilistic insanity of Thompson is an effect of an American counter-revolution. The hopeful days of Free Love, Woodstock and Civil Rights were shattered by Nixon, the horrors of Vietnam, and the assassinations of leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. From the wake of this social destruction comes someone like Thompson, who shows his hatred of American hypocrisy by personally living as a beast.
One can start to admire Thompson’s recklessness because, as the film makes clear, the affirmation of American values is aggressive at its core, especially in Vegas in the 1970s. Thompson is surrounded by square-jawed cops and their beauty parlor wives, who indulge in “acceptable” vices — booze, steak, cigars, gambling, Cadillac cars — with patriotic delusion. But if Gilliam hopes to explore why Thompson and his lawyer are living well outside the bounds of social norms, his film style has added unnecessary layers of gloss. The style begins to absolve the lifestyles of the main characters, which are anti-political because they are not trying to build anything better. More restraint in visual style would allow for the self-destruction to Thompson to be a naked counterpoint to his refusal of the American Dream.
Fear and Loathing‘s style is fueled by the film’s set direction. The biggest examples, to my mind, are the trashed hotel rooms. Like the costumes that Thompson finds himself wearing the morning after a binge, the state of the rooms are meant to make us curious about the depths of two people’s behavior. Who brought and placed the bottom half of a mannequin on the toilet seat? How was the sub-level of the hotel room flooded? Who painted a large Gonzo fist with shaving cream? Gilliam cannot answer all of these questions; in fact, the film already has flashbacks when Thompson tries to remember how certain things came to be. Yet by making each square inch of a destroyed hotel room be evidence of drug binges, Gilliam is sharing common ground with teen comedies of the 90s, which would overpopulate its high school parties and have the horny revelry spread to every nook and cranny of a three story, multi-bedroom house.
I used to think Gilliam was a natural fit for this film adaptation. But we have a nihilistic story that, essentially, is so stylized that you feel shame for lacking Thompson’s will to be a pure individual, something Aristotle would believe only gods and monsters can accomplish. Certainly this shame is an extension of fantasy to be as cool as Thompson, who has accumulated a million crazy stories to tell your friends at a bar; even your anecdotes of getting a hotel key from the concierge will keep your admirers listening. But, alas, this fantasy is drawn from the film. And what can this lifestyle accomplish? I’m not sure we know.