By 1971, writer Hunter S. Thompson was feeling the strain of being the standard-bearer for the new kind of highly subjective, style-conscious journalism dubbed “gonzo.” So when Sports Illustrated assigned Thompson to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas—and then rejected the article—he responded by writing the angriest, most impassioned piece of his career. Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is a vicious, drug-fueled screed about the meaning of the gambling mecca, and how the hippie ideal had become corrupted by the Nixon-era version of the American Dream. Director Terry Gilliam’s 1998 film adaptation doesn’t just translate Thompson’s opus into pictures; it’s also a comment on Thompson’s larger-than-life personality and the underlying themes that are often hard to find beneath his freeform prose. Johnny Depp stars as Thompson’s pseudonymous character Raoul Duke, who along with attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (played by a bloated Benicio Del Toro), races across the desert in a rental car stocked with bizarre pharmaceuticals. Like the article that precedes it, there’s not much plot to Fear And Loathing, beyond a brief digression where Thompson abandons the motocross story to cover a convention of narcotics agents. Mostly the film consists of Depp and Del Toro cavorting around Vegas, rambling nonsensically, and leaving a trail of destruction and filth in their wake.
Gilliam conveys all this with the help of a staggering visual style that would make Oliver Stone nauseated. He shoots with a relentlessly wobbling camera, while shifting color schemes on a whim, relying heavily on Depp’s bellowing narration to explicate the action. Depp’s sweet face belies the rage and dementia in Thompson’s words. (The man’s loathing has always been easy to grasp; Depp gets beneath the fear.) Gilliam sprinkles in moments of crystalline clarity to justify the foulness, as in the key image of the film: Depp and Del Toro howling with sorrow while tooling down the Strip in a vomit-streaked convertible, as four elderly tourists ride in a car beside them and try to avoid meeting their gaze. Here are two sets of Americans, each looking for artificially induced happiness in a world of glitter, with neither wanting to acknowledge the other. This is the soul of Thompson’s writing at its best: a drunkard suddenly seeing through all the fake politeness and hypocrisy of society and not knowing whether to laugh at it or throw up in its face.
Availability: Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal and Criterion, and for digital rental or download from multiple online retailers.