After the rousing financial success of his previous release 12 Monkeys, someone finally saw fit to give Terry Gilliam a small influx of money to release one of his many long-term passion projects hounding him for what sometimes seems like decades. Of course, that didn’t end up happening and to this day still doesn’t seem to have worked out in his favor, but the man needed work, and when the long-dormant adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s bananas American nightmare Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (in production as a film as early as the early ’70s) came his way, and someone actually wanted him to direct something for once, Gilliam couldn’t say no to a chance to have a little fun with a project he never much viewed as a personal commitment. Maybe it was letting his hair down a little, but what better way to let your hair down than with a drug-infused trip to Las Vegas with Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, and one of the great cult icons of American fiction?
Taking up his usual habit of rabidly re-writing films given to him to make them his own films even when they weren’t, Gilliam put a lot of high-spirited, generally confused, passionate, and sometimes weary work into Fear and Loathing’s colossally indulgent screenplay. He does at least retain the general outline of the book: two men, supposed journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) in a drug-induced haze in Las Vegas and generally making things difficult for themselves. Even more-so, he has fashioned it into something even more like the book it is based on, a stream of consciousness jumble more well-known to literature than visual fiction, out and out sacrificing a concern for why the two characters were in Las Vegas or what journalism Duke hopes to achieve.
What Gilliam transforms the film into is a mess, but it’s a mess that feels more purposeful and pointed than your average cinematic mess. His essential tactic is to recreate the rambling, untamed, neurotic anxiety of Thompson’s writing in a visual medium, accompanied of course by no small portion of dialogue directly quoted from Thompson’s rampaging stupor of a book. In doing so, he achieves something more “Gonzo” – that being Thompson’s essential belief in subjective journalism blending fact and fiction almost to the point where the two, even the the facts the journalist presents, become subjective and open to interpretation (as all journalism truly is, even when it doesn’t say it).
Right from the beginning, Gilliam makes no bones about this film as Thompson’s animated, artificial, drug-enhanced vision: we open on a shot of Depp and del Toro cavorting across a desert road in a car and then Depp begins to ramble on about bats. We cut to a shot of Depp’s eye helmeted by sunglasses with obviously cartoon bats floating rather statically in the reflection, only for the bats to move inwards into Depp’s glasses filling the lens in cartoon blackness. A smash cut and Depp lurches up to grab a bat that doesn’t exist. The deliberately animated nature of the bats and the way they are presented only in reflection through Depp’s glasses suggests Gilliam is fully aware that Thompson’s book is not simply “truth in journalism” but his own improvisational take on the world, personal and filled with his own gestures that may not accurately reflect any objective truth.
Gilliam certainly mocks Thompson throughout; the gonzo journalist’s cutting barbs and unquenchable thirst for commentary sometimes visually revealed to be nothing more than the machinations of his own mind, but elsewhere his jabs are on the money and Gilliam does allow for a certain unstated truth to Thompson’s vision. Thus, Gilliam is trying to have it both ways; he plays with Thompson’s words visually to portray them as both his own delusional mania and a certain reflective truth that the 1960s and 1970s was itself a time where delusional mania was a truth. Thus, even if Thompson is “wrong”, he’s “right”, and Fear and Loathing becomes a subversive document of a time where truth and lies intertwined at a fundamental level.
We should step back a bit: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a visually witty film filled with tricks and tools of the trade, but it is also a visually messy work. Gilliam rampantly and unabashedly utilizes fish-eye lens like nobody’s business, and the obviously artificial stagecraft set design works to paint the film as a work of artifice. But to what end? The too-prominent fish-eye lenses are a deliberately alienating gesture to remind that this is Thompson’s warped vision of reality and less the actual reality he lived in. But the scenes that do not obviously reflect the characters’ eye tell their own tale. Gilliam is careful to depict a clear sky in the arid, muted malaise of the desert early on, careful to show that no bat flies above and that Thompson is imagining the bats. Yet after they drive off, when neither figure is looking, Gilliam trains his eye on what must be a bat recently slain by their well-tread tires. Contrast and confusion abound, with no clear sense of whether Gilliam is trying to say that his characters are clueless, or whether they are really on to something.
Which brings us to the question of intent: if Fear is a film of confused, aimless visual gestures that make no sense, is it of a caliber that the confusion is a statement to something else? Gilliam’s perfectionist history suggests yes, but the fact that this was a last-minute stop-gap for him suggests otherwise. The fact that Gilliam fills the film with panache and visual excitement suggests yes, but the fact that he rewrote the screenplay almost whole cloth in the few days before filming began and still commenced with something still largely in the womb argues otherwise. The overwhelming sense is that this was a very confused film while it was being made, with clashes of tone and vision that were multitudinous and ubiquitous. The sense is of a very slapdash, barely contained film just held together at the seams, a tiring work where the visual gestures do not form a cohesive sense of commentary on the late ’60s and early ’70s, nor on film, nor on Thompson, nor on drugs, nor on much of anything.
Yet here still things only become more confused, and this may be just a special gesture of the topic as a saving grace for Gilliam’s wholly non-judicious exploration of that topic: the film is so confused about what it is as a film that it actually seems all the more truthful to its subject matter, that of two men and a national counter-culture backing them totally unsure of what sense meant anymore, woozily skipping back and forth between assurance that they alone knew the truth, and endless doubt that even they were lost to the ether. The way in which Gilliam made the film deliberately against his perfectionist sensibility, the way in which he threw himself into a mess waiting to sputter out and doomed to die, yet all the more lively for the stop-start confusion with which it was made, recalls more than anything the aimless loss of time known most well to the men and women Thompson represents. Fear and Loathing does not attempt to, as most films do, thematize or say something about Thompson. It seeks to be Thompson, to indulge us in its own paranoia and confusion and its sense of moving one way and then turning back on itself and contradicting itself and not knowing what to do so.
It is a character study in a truer sense in this way, not a film that attempts to distance itself from its characters and have them learn something. It simply seeks to be its characters, to get to know them by becoming, as a film, those characters. The sense is that Thompson, a man endlessly unsure of truth, has taken over the film itself and edited it to contradict itself, to not make sense and deny its own truth so as to include itself under the larger umbrella of artifice it wishes to comment on. It is a work of Gonzo filmmaking, a commentary on the early ’70s but even more-so a commentary on how no one can truly and objectively make a commentary on the 1970s. It is in fundamental self-conflict, and nothing could be more Thompson-esque than that.
The whole thing is a rotting, festering mess of corpulent indulgence, but it is, while it’s being a rotting, festering mess of corpulent indulgence, at least a fascinatingly messy one in a way that feels more fiery and vicious than an underdeveloped sense of the film’s identity. There’s a lot to like in Fear and Loathing, and the relative grounding of the subject does not curb Gilliam’s visual eye or subversive sensibilities one iota. But it’s a lot of film, and a little of this pestering nonsense goes a long way. A two hour stream-of-consciousness fever dream reading of Thompson’s writing is easy to appreciate in the abstract for how much it rejects narrative coherence or continuity or good taste. But the mind grows weary, and there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Everything about Fear and Loathing is ugly and unfathomable, a recollection on the ways in which drugs in the early ’70s were no longer a source of freedom but of catatonia and hopelessness, and a work that viciously slashes itself in the foot at every turn. It is an endlessly off-putting motion picture, a work that achieves exactly what it set to do without sacrifice, from the structure to the look on down to Depp and del Toro giving marvelously physical performances as alien waxworks figures that don’t go down easy. Even the humor, absurdist and tangential and dry and surreal, is effective in an off-putting way.
A great aesthetic, and Fear and Loathing is a work where aesthetic and form are fully in unison with the needs of the picture, is never less than watchable, and often fascinating, but the desperate sadness lying in wait in Thompson’s works never once skulks in front of the camera lens. Not in front of the drug-induced mania. Not in front of the waxworks show fashioned as commentary on film fakery. And not in front of Gilliam’s caustic, bitter bark. This may be the point: that the drugs hide the sadness and keep it hidden from the user, and so the film keeps it hidden from us. It’s a hell of a bark, and the ensuing bite tears its prey to shreds within the first third. But at two hours, the film is tearing on the tattered remains of its audience. There’s nothing left but overkill, and as a general rule, we all know, a film ought to get its point across in as few frames as physically possible. Of course, the point with Fear and Loathing is that everything that might be immediate and terse in normal life is elongated and morphed into forever by drugs, so the endless, pummeling length is meant to convey exactly the way drug users no longer know the benefits of concision, or time at all. But man, a film dedicated to its own difficulty and willfully off-putting nature is a difficult proposition, and it is much easier to appreciate Gilliam’s film – which is unremittingly cold and lacks any warmth whatsoever – than it is to actually fall in love with it.