Fresh Eyes: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Growing up, I was more exposed to British sitcoms and sketch shows than I was to American ones. I was fed on a steady diet of Keeping Up Appearances, Are You Being Served?, and Fawlty Towers. But the king amongst these was, of course, Monty Python's Flying Circus. I watched hours upon hours of Flying Circus, to the point that I cosplayed the Spanish Inquisition with a group of friends one year. My favorite part of the show, however, was the animation inter-titles, done by the masterful Terry Gilliam.
Until now, my experience with Gilliam has been extremely limited. Due to my enjoyment of his Python animations, my dad gave me a copy of Time Bandits, which became my sick day movie and has subsequently crept its way into my personal top 10. For some reason, I thought I knew what to expect going into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel of the same name by Hunter S. Thompson, is an incredible and highly stressful ride of a film, and Terry Gilliam somehow manages to maintain the frantic energy and absurdist nature of his Monty Python animations throughout the whole thing. The plot, if one can call it that, involves Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) traveling through Las Vegas in a drug-fueled nightmare. It's difficult to find a through line for a single plot, as the film is essentially a series of vignettes, with a new one starting each time Duke and Gonzo ingest a new round of drugs. There's a partial storyline about Duke being in Vegas to report on a bike race, which is dropped early on, and towards the end of the film the pair accidentally kidnap a young girl and then abandon her suddenly.
It's hard to pin down a single plot to the film, but that is kind of the point, I feel. The structure and pacing of the film mirrors the highs and lows of a drug trip, with sequences of intense and bizarre imagery and cinematography, followed by sluggish and kind of irritating calm periods. Depp's performance is the main vehicle for the structure, as when he goes really off the rails with his drug trips, as does the rest of the film. Depp's tendency to be strange and over the top in his performances works really well in a film that relishes being just that. Looking back, it feels as if a lot of Depp's more recent performances, specifically Jack Sparrow, have been trying to recapture the energy and twitchy nature of Raoul Duke. Benicio Del Toro's Dr, Gonzo is great to watch in the moment, and serves as a good foil for Duke, but Del Toro's performance is much louder than Depp's. By the end of the film, I really just wanted Dr. Gonzo to go away and be quiet. But again, I think that's the point.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas's strongest point is the abstract and absurdist nature of what it commits to screen, and the metaphorical nature of it all. There's a pervasive feeling of sadness and regret throughout the film, and a constant anxiety about the state of the United States in a post-Vietnam War world. There's a feeling that Duke and Dr. Gonzo are choosing to live in these drug-induced hellscapes because what they experience there is better than the real world. Raoul Duke in particular has more than one speech about Las Vegas being the last vanguard of the dying American Dream, and how the progress made by the hippies in the 1960s has visibly rolled back and been forgotten. This notion is compounded by how Duke sees the casino patrons as slimy, lecherous lizard people; monsters giving into their baser tendencies, grasping at the idea that they can get rich fast and move up in life, despite everything being rigged against them, both in the casino and the world outside the neon soaked Vegas Strip. This worry about a self-destructing world and dying American Dream ring especially true in the current political climate, where it feels as if everything is crumbling around us as we desperately try to hold on to what values we still have left.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is an incredible film, but also one of the most exhausting and difficult things I've watched for Fresh Eyes so far. The death of the American Dream is not a new topic of discussion in cinema, as gangster films have been dealing with that for decades, but this film handles it in a compelling and genuinely off-putting manner. However up and down Gilliam and Depp's careers are, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will remain a high point for both of them.