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FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS
Criterion Collection

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Johnny Depp, Benicio Del Toro
Director:  Terry Gilliam
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  119 Minutes
Release Date:  February 18, 2003

“We were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave…Now, less than five years later, you can almost see the high water mark…that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back…”

Film ***

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a perfect three way marriage—the direction of Terry Gilliam, the writing of Hunter S. Thompson, and the performance of Johnny Depp. The end result was a film only for the adventurous willing to turn on, tune in…and hang on for the ride.

Based on the book by Thompson and written “in the foul year of our Lord 1971”, the story and film exist on multiple levels.  It’s easy to dismiss it at first glance as something akin to a hipper Cheech and Chong, but Raoul Duke (Depp, in the character based on Thompson) and Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro, modeled after Thompson’s comrade Oscar Zeta Acosta) were more than just members of the drug culture.  As a journalist and lawyer respectively, they may have been the perfect two men to push themselves to the edge of sanity and come back to not only tell the tale, but put it all into some kind of manic social perspective.

From the opening scenes, it's clear what kind of movie this is going to be. It's a drug film, make no mistake. Most of the story is seen through the eyes of two doped to the eyeballs spectators, and Gilliam pulls no punches in making the audience feel everything they feel, from the bliss to the paranoia, to the eventual sickness of the come down. Visually, this film is masterful, and what you've come to expect from Terry Gilliam.

But there is a point to it all, beyond the seemingly self-serving disarray and madness.  The book represented an exclamation point in cultural history, as the flower-power and love-your-neighbor free spirit of the 60s were turning into the dark disillusionment of the 70s.  Perhaps we can imagine Duke and Gonzo slipping into their narcotic haze at one point and relaxing into a love in, but no more.  The drugs continue to expand their consciousness, but their consciousness continues to expand away from them, leaving in their wake emptiness, desolation, and despair…and yes, fear and loathing.

What we see on the screen is often pure chaos…what was going on in the real world wasn’t much less so.  While Duke and Gonzo sometimes seem to withdraw into a universe of their own drug-induced making, you can’t help but notice the real world creeping in from the margins.  Televisions punctuate dialogue with reports on Vietnam.  Images of protestors flash by.  At one hotel scene where a convention of cops and district attorneys have gathered, you can even hear one bragging about the kind of gun they used to take care of business at Kent State.  The world was going insane, and “gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who during those years would report on the fall of Muhammad Ali, the rise of Nixon and others, was maybe only trying to keep one step ahead.  If there is regret at the end, it is only because the world had finally caught up.

I feel I’m neglecting to give this film credit for it’s comic aspects…indeed, the opening sequence is as funny and energetic as any I’ve ever seen.  I’ve personally witnessed it engrossing some first time viewers, who sit back anxiously to watch the rest, but many never make it to the end!  Still, the bits of dialogue and exchanges are worth listening to:  they’re frequently humorous and insightful, not only about the characters’ states of mind, but about the world around them as well.

But the comedy is only one part of the trip.  What goes up must come down, not only for Duke and Gonzo, but for America as well.  There is humor, but also sadness…and if you get so caught up in the strange attack on the senses the movie assaults you with that you miss Duke’s simple observation (quoted above), then you’ve only experienced the film’s mind and missed it’s heart.

Johnny Depp delivers another winning performance while pulling another terrific voice from his arsenal a la Ed Wood. The moment he first takes his hat off and you see him bald is about as funny a moment as you can get, as are his repeated drug influenced observations (“suddenly, I was in the middle of a f---ing reptile zoo! And somebody was giving booze to the God d--n things!”).  Equally adept is Benicio Del Toro, who has the amusing task of standing next to a character like Duke and actually being the less sane of the two!

And part of the fun is the watch for other stars who have walk-on parts in the movie…my favorites include Gary Busey as a highway patrolman, and Christina Ricci, who paints portraits of Barbara Streisand.  Why?  Well, why not?

Most Terry Gilliam films receive decidedly mixed reviews, but the response to Fear and Loathing was far and away unjustly negative.  True, part of the experience is unpleasantness, but to sugar coat that aspect would be to rob the picture of some of its insightful power.  If you choose to look at the movie as being trapped in a surreal setting with a pair of fried ex-hippies, then you’re in for a long two hours. 

But look beyond the surface at the changing times in America, where her innocence was being ravaged by cynicism, and where flower children were waking up to realize their philosophy of love and peace, no matter how well-intended, was dying before their eyes and leaving their lives as empty shells.  That’s the ultimate downer, and the reality that no amount of substance abuse could keep out, even for Duke and Gonzo.

Video ***1/2

Fear and Loathing is nothing if not an all-out visual assault.  This anamorphic transfer is all about colors, and it’s no complaint to say that the colors are frequently unnatural in appearance.  By giving his film all the explosion of a heightened acid trip, Terry Gilliam often drenches and saturates his picture with extreme color schemes; some designed to be beautiful, some designed to hasten the downward spiral.  Given the nature of the visuals, this might not be the first disc you grab to show off your player, but from a technical standpoint, this had to be very difficult material to preserve digitally.  Criterion did a superb job in rendering every overwhelming detail.

Audio *** (DTS ***1/2)

Most of the film is driven by dialogue and classic rock music, and both the Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks handle that equally well.  The dynamic range is very strong, often surprising, and if there’s one minor complaint, it’s that sometimes the dialogue gets a little scrunched in the mix.  There are some points where the background is supposed to overwhelm the speech, but at other places it just seems a bit thin in comparison to the chaos around.  The music sounds fantastic…in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane come across so well!

The main difference between the two offerings is that the DTS handles subtle sounds a little better…not that you can’t hear them on the Dolby track, but the DTS seems to stick the little ambient noises in places where they seem to be emanating from different layers of space.  For a movie like this, it’s a tiny improvement that will be appreciated.

Features ****

Talk about expanding your consciousness…all you need is this fantastic features package from Criterion!  Just go slow so you don’t overdose.  ;-)

Disc One boasts three full length commentary tracks.  The first is by director Terry Gilliam, whom I consider one of the best in the business at commentary.  He has a relaxed speaking voice, a great sense of humor, and offers plenty of detail about every aspect of making the movie.  In short, it’s both an informative and entertaining listen.  Track Two features stars Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro along with producer Laila Nabulsi…all recorded separately, but smoothly edited together for a cohesive experience.  Depp’s recollections about working with Thompson are a plus (particularly when he talks about shaving his head), while Del Toro discusses creating a real character from second hand information and what it was like playing scenes with Johnny.  Nabulsi has a kindly voice, but watch out…she’s tough and no-nonsense!  The final track features none other than the man himself, Hunter S. Thompson (along with Nabulsi, who guides him along with some questions).

But we’re not on to the second disc yet.  The first one also includes three deleted scenes with option Gilliam commentary, who discusses among other things why they were cut (mostly for time and rhythm purposes).

NOW on to Disc Two, which is even more loaded.  My favorite piece was an audio bit discussing the screenwriting credit controversy, in which Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni along with Laila Nabulsi discuss how Tod Davies and Alex Cox got their names onto a script they didn’t write, thanks to the Writers’ Guild of America!  The dialogue is accompanied by a photo of Gilliam burning his WGA card.  There is also a trailer and several TV spots, galleries of storyboards, production designs and stills, a documentary short Hunter Goes to Hollywood, pieces of Thompson’s correspondences with Johnny Depp as read on camera by Depp, materials on Oscar Zeta Acosta, including live footage of him reading an excerpt from his book and Thompson’s own reflections of him, an excerpt from the 1996 audio CD of Fear and Loathing with narration by Harry Dean Stanton featuring Jim Jarmusch and Maury Chaykin playing Duke and Gonzo respectively, and the 1978 BBC documentary on Thompson Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood.  Rounding out is an art gallery of Ralph Steadman’s illustrations.

The disc also boasts another terrific Criterion booklet, filled with pictures, artwork, an essay by critic J. Hoberman and a pair of pieces by Thompson. 

Summary:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is another in a long line of films from Terry Gilliam that is as likely to alienate some audiences as it is to endear others.  On the surface, it may seem like nothing more than an indulgent translation of chemical fried brain matter to screen, but the drug use in the movie, as in real life, could not completely shut out the real world or the changing times its protagonists were observing and preserving for all time.  This fantastic double disc offering from Criterion just might be the high you never come down from.