They were somewhere outside Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs kicked in. At the end of this psychedelic adventure with Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro, we feel a little lightheaded, as if we’ve been taking the same drugs for two hours. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas it’s a drug-induced thrill unlike any other. We’ve seen Cheech and Chong and a slew of other jaw-dropping duos take audiences on a wild ride to another realm. But there’s something different about Terry Gilliam’s directorial take on Hunter S. Thompson’s award-winning novel about a writer and his lawyer’s quest for the American dream. But did they find it?
The film is set in the 1970s after the sexual and psychedelic liberation of the 1960s hippie movement. Americans committed to a free for all and were trying just about anything. The music seemed to reflect this after the Beatles exploded into pop culture and moved the music in a more experimental direction. The film also takes place during the era of gonzo journalism. At the time of the novel’s inception, writers such as Thompson were striving to be as authentic and faithful to the truth as possible. Hunter S. Thompson was an advocate of this style of writing. Thompson uses first person to tell the story of writer Raoul Duke and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo…do you see a connection yet? In the film, however, Duke (Johnny Depp) uses the voiceover to guide us on this journey into a reality that is anything but real.
Tripping the audience
Johnny Depp’s character Raoul is almost like a shaman who guides the audience through the trials and tribulations of his drug-filled time in Vegas. For those who have never done the long list of reality-bending substances the characters go through, it could be quite bewildering to see for the first time. The images on the screen are altered and presented in a way that makes us feel as if we are tripping over Raoul. The carpets move, faces and voices alter and some monstrous figures seem to take possession of those that once seemed familiar.
However, this technique and execution may be too strident and must be performed as closely as possible to experience. After all, we are talking about Gonzo. The psychedelic images presented in the film are shown to us by a director who has actually made some of these substances, so he may know a thing or two about what the user might expect. According to IndieWire, Terry Gilliam was using drugs at the time this film took place.
“I smoked marijuana once in college and I didn’t like it,” Gilliam said. “LSD terrified me. When I moved to London and occasionally had to fly to Hollywood for work, I returned with vicious jet lag. At parties someone offered cocaine, because it was the 80s and coke was everywhere, and a couple of times I said yes. I was tired, I could not stand. But the hangover was horrible and so I said to myself: never again”.
So, from the words of someone who has actually seen the effects of these mind-altering drugs, the film has a little more credence. The film is often referred to as one of the most accurate psychedelic films of all time. However, director Ari Aster used similar techniques to visually bend images 20 years later in his 2019 horror film Mid summer, which shows a group of young adults stumbling through a Swedish village. Most of the foliage in the film moves as the characters become increasingly intoxicated. Movies like Enter the void they also mimic the out-of-body experiences of drugs such as DMT, one of many films that used a more experimental and lighthearted approach to the presentation of drug intoxication. But there is something special Fear and Loathing in Vegas, which is accentuated by the incredible performances of Depp and del Toro.
Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing
Johnny Depp plays the character of Hunter S. Thompson through Raoul Duke, the writer with a bag full of every drug imaginable. His movements are superbly gelatinous and eccentric right from the start and audiences can’t help but feel the beats of sweat run down their faces as they watch this man melt under the pulsing pressure of the devil’s aether.
Depp told Fox News in 1998 about his experience with Hunter S. Thompson and his opinion of the actor’s performance:
“He was very generous with his words after the film […] he clapped, you know, he just said you did a great job and he loved the movie and didn’t want it to end. She had said the greatest thing, she called the film an eerie clarion call about a lost battlefield, which I thought was so beautiful and so profound. Yes, he supports the film and was very supportive and kind with my performance, so I was really pleased. It was a huge relief, believe me, because I thought she might hate him, that she might hate me.”
What Depp and Thompson both seem to describe is this “lost battlefield” idea, particularly in cinema. The films take a formulaic approach to a subject like drug liberation and seem to deny the perspective of those who lived during that time. While the film doesn’t glorify drugs through Depp’s performance, it does evoke a response from viewers. It’s not a cookie-cutter movie at all. While Depp is the face, the technical applications and inspiring imagery are what drive audiences crazy.
Too weird to live too rare to die
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas represents the pinnacle of psychedelic cinema. Makes for movie thing Magical mystery tour made for the music world. There’s something there to derive an emotional response from the audience, whether it’s fear or hatred. The film is a look at history and does just that.
Some seem to be trying to pull off a theme and purpose behind it, finding religious allegory or political significance in Gilliam’s great film. However, there may not be a point at all. After all, most of the images in the film were all in the character’s mind anyway. So, with a movie like this, you better buckle up and drive as deep into “bat country” as you could possibly imagine.