No less than the decade it eulogizes in a haze of marijuana smoke, psychotropic apparitions, ether vapors, and coke sweats, Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant, notorious Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has aged startlingly well. Picked up by Gilliam when fellow cinema madman Alex Cox dropped out, the project, penned by Gilliam, Cox, Tod Davies, and Tony Grisoni, was long thought to be the most preposterous screen adaptation ever mounted—an impossibly addled switchback ride through the death rattles of the 1960s, compacted and then stretched out like silly putty over a three-day fever dream in the heart of Sin City. For Gilliam, the sheer outrageousness of the dystopian Freedomland that Thompson (a.k.a. Raoul Duke) had found or hallucinated about out in the desert while covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated presented a perfect outlet for his giddy, often disturbing brand of inventiveness, and, indeed, Fear and Loathing stands as the Monty Python alum’s last completely successful work. As Gilliam and Thompson saw it, the dreaded hangover after the hopeful, idealistic bliss-out of the ’60s was pitched somewhere between gallows humor, existential mania, and the unrelenting horror of not only what we had lost but what we had traded it in for.
Driving along the open desert road, en route to an assignment too mundane to really care about it, Duke (Johnny Depp) and his attorney, the infamous Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro in a fearless, terrifying, and utterly spellbinding performance), are more concerned with the American Dream that they had watched evaporate like a line of chopped cocaine up the nose of a wasted generation. In reality, Thompson and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta (Gonzo) were in the throes of their own fiendish paranoia, following Thompson’s investigation into the Los Angeles Sherriff Department’s “accidental” killing of television newsman Ruben Salazar. The excursion out to Glitter Gulch was meant to be a way to clear their minds, to discuss the case and the article that Thompson had been writing for Rolling Stone. Opening on the book’s legendary first line (“We were somewhere around Barsthow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold”), however, the film informs us immediately that no clear minds will be found on this particular assignment.
Seeing as it features perhaps the best acid-trip sequence to ever be projected at 24 frames-per-second, it’s fitting that Fear and Loathing never quite plants its feet on the ground for the whole of its 119-minute runtime. Depp’s physical approximation of our zonked-out hero, moving through variations of uppers, downers, and hallucinogens with his eyebrows on full-tilt and gestures becoming perpetually more frantic, is a wonder, but the best help the film gets, aptly enough, is from its real-life protagonist, whose culture-shocked prose is spooned out in Depp’s narration like multicolored globs of concentrated paranoia, desperation, and incomprehensible lunacy. Oddly enough, Fear and Loathing proves to be formidably cinematic in its delirious sprawl: Alex McDowell’s exemplary production design suggests Federico Fellini adapting a confluence of post-counterculture films (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Scarecrow spring to mind) while the puppetry and visual effects are pure Gilliam. A woozy, warped trip through a carnival-themed bar and casino invokes the depraved underside of the carnival and club sequence in Murnau’s Sunrise, exposed after decades of moral decay and mental wear and tear.
As gruesome and gaudy as Gilliam’s vision of the Las Vegas Strip is, greater horrors are to be found in the hotels that Gonzo and Duke roll through. Gonzo’s failed attempts to court Christina Ricci’s nubile street artist are bad enough, but del Toro’s tour-de-force performance peaks as he flails about in a bathtub and calls for Duke to electrocute him at the triumphant summit of “White Rabbit,” as Grace Slick reminds you to “feed your head.” Bathed in the afterglow of televised wars, game shows, and Nixon’s droopy mug, Gonzo and Duke let the drugs loose on their irrevocably expanded psyches within the four hideously wallpapered sides of their suite, with only Gonzo’s bowie knife and carts full of leftover room service to aid them. By the time they come down from a frenzied adrenochrome trip, just in time to get Gonzo to the airport, their second hotel room had deteriorated into a sticky pool of booze, bile, juice, and dingy bath water.
Littered with game supporting players, including Tobey Maguire, Christopher Meloni, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, and the late Michael Jeter, Gilliam’s wild ride brilliantly visualizes the indecipherable ambiguity between a vicious lost weekend in a neon Babylon and the bizarre everyday atrocities of the 1970s. The troubled process of getting a cohesive script together yielded a loose, strong blueprint that admittedly did away with some of the more sickeningly unsure and desperate moments of Thompson’s travelogue, which are here distilled into a singular, uncompromising scene of terror where Gonzo berates and threatens Ellen Barkin’s tough-as-nails diner waitress. Indeed, I admittedly found Gilliam’s film a botched adaptation and visual mediocrity when I first encountered it in 2003, only a few weeks after finishing the novel in total reverie. Now, after years of minding the unimaginative rigidness of stricter adaptations, Fear and Loathing’s balance between Thompson’s twitchy death knell and Gilliam’s perverse wonderland seems completely apropos, maybe even accurate, and the cumulative dose is immensely effective.
Criterion’s AVC-encoded/1080p transfer has hugely improved the image balance of Universal’s Blu-ray release of the film. The high levels of brightness have been traded in for an oddly natural look that befits Gilliam’s aesthetic, which splits the difference between drug-induced mania and the gaudy designs of the 1970s. Colors look great and detailing is above satisfactory, especially when it comes to all that shag carpeting. Many of the noise, flecks and scratches that Universal missed have also been dealt with. The audio, handling a dizzying array of levels at times, is even more impressive. Balancing the film’s vintage soundtrack—which swings from Buffalo Springfield to Three Dog Night to the Yardbirds effortlessly—with the immense atmosphere noise, Depp’s narration, and the dialogue is no easy task, but the disc sounds fantastic, with narration and dialogue slightly up front. The carnival bar scene alone shows off the detailed work Criterion put into this.
Criterion packs this Blu-ray with a myriad of media and insights, an apt treatment considering the cult status of both the film and its source material. The three commentaries are the most insightful extras, offering candid opinions from Hunter S. Thompson, Terry Gilliam, Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, and producer Laila Nabulsi on the production, the film’s message, and Thompson himself, along with a smattering of on-set anecdotes. The deleted scenes are largely superfluous, as is a short documentary on the adaptation, a short film, and an audio-only discussion about who should get credit for the screenplay. Much better are the feature-length BBC doc on the adaptation, which features interviews with Thompson, Depp, and del Toro, and a selection of correspondences by Thompson, read on-screen by Depp. Excerpts from a recording of the film’s audio book, featuring Jim Jarmusch, Maury Chaykin, and Harry Dean Stanton are enjoyable but of little note. Storyboards, illustrations, stills, production designs, a theatrical trailer, a profile of Oscar Zeta Acosta, and a booklet featuring an excellent piece on the film by J. Hoberman and two pieces by Thompson are also included.
Criterion has packaged Terry Gilliam’s wildly divisive Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a bounty of extras that offers a variety of opinions on the film that absolutely dwarfs the amount of barbiturates ingested throughout the narrative.