Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: a psychedelic slapstick comedy satire on American society and its values

Terry Gilliam, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1998)

From that period of Johnny Depp’s acting career when the films he was making were actually quite significant and not a waste of his talent comes this road movie corker based on journalist Hunter S Thompson’s memoir of his car trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race. For the role of Thompson in his alter ego Raoul Duke, Depp had to shave the top part of his head: not the usual thing for self-obsessed actors to do. Accompanied by Benicio del Toro playing Thompson’s gun-crazy attorney, Depp takes viewers on a roller-coaster ride to Vegas at the dawn of the 1970s, after Woodstock and Altamont. Directed by Terry Gilliam, the film simulates something of a drug addict’s viewpoint of the culture he encounters in Vegas, the values and assumptions that inform it and how this culture reflects and is reflected by the hippie counter-culture he’s familiar with back in California.

The plot narrative is a string of incidents coming one after another so viewers should not expect a straightforward and coherent story with a clearly defined beginning, the unfolding of the story and its characters, rising tension culminating in a climax and then a denouement. At just under two hours, the film can seem much longer due to the lack of a conventional story-line and it does sag in parts. But that’s the point: the film is as much a fictional documentary of mainstream American culture of the period when the Vietnam War was raging and occupying people’s attention, civil rights was also a significant issue though barely referenced in the film and the youth culture of the time both critiqued the dominant culture and sought an alternative way through various avenues positive and negative. Gilliam resorts to clever camera tricks, a loud and garish emphasis on colour, slapstick, a voice-over narration by Depp in character and special effects to maintain audience attention; Gilliam’s bag of tricks works to an extent, to the point of drowning out the film’s criticism of both mainstream consumerist culture and the culture that arose in opposition to it.

The comedy is entertaining and the rare moments of seriousness when Duke reflects on the worlds he moves within – the dominant culture of materialism and greed, the counter-culture of youth, rock music, drugs and a shallow understanding of love and peace – are to be treasured. Duke’s drug haze allows the audience to view Western culture from a very different angle from what they are familiar with and what they see can be very ugly: fat middle-aged people obsessed with gambling and easy wealth, their own selfish needs and narrow and prejudiced minds, and the businesses and people who pander to their every whim and pamper them like infants. At the same time, both Duke and his attorney suffer severe side-effects of the substances they constantly imbibe and viewers become very aware of how the hippie dream turned sour for so many people. The film is very clear on the harm that drugs can do and on how a generation threw away so much hope because people believed that drugs were an easy way to achieving enlightenment and would somehow help bring about an end to war and divisions in society and instill a period of love, equality, connection with all humanity and peace. Few people realised at the time how deeply wounded American society was from its history and racial, political and class divisions.

For all its assets – and those are many: Depp and del Toro’s acting, the support cast that includes some quite illustrious actors like Harry Dean Stanton, the directing, the look of the film – I somehow feel that “Fear and Loathing …” does not give very much insight into Duke’s character, why he takes so many drugs and continues to take them after the ravages they wreak on his body and mind, and what he might be escaping from by taking them. Fortunately I chanced to read a review of a documentary by Alex Gibney on Hunter S Thompson, “Gonzo: the Life and Work of Hunter S Thompson” on the World Socialist website, and was able to see where Thompson was coming from in terms of his upbringing and social background, how his view of society was affected by the events he witnessed and the cultural phenomena he experienced, and the pessimism, demoralisation and depression he developed as he realised how corrupt and unredeemable American politics and culture had become. This explains his constant drug-taking which to his credit he understood was a way of running away from and denying the ugly reality of America, a path that so many other people also took. Thus the film “Fear and Loathing …” itself documents the fall of the hippie dream and the culture that it spawned as well as the degradation of the society that the hippie generation criticised. It is appropriate that the film ends on a somewhat sober note.

In its own way, “Fear and Loathing …” is something of an existential film, using Thompson’s drug haze as a metaphor for a search to a deeper meaning to existence, one in which humans can finally learn to live together in true love and peace, in harmony with their environment and all that’s in it, without relying on props like lies, propaganda, class divisions and drugs.

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