I’m gonna call this one a “high school movie”. You know the ones; they’re the movies that you watched as an adolescent that expanded what you thought film could be. They’re certainly (by and large) more mature than the ones that you had watched in your early childhood, but still fairly juvenile. To use further analogies it’s like opening that punk rocker’s CD case (god i’m really dating myself there) and finding you don’t recognize a single band, thus blowing your mind that other music exists apart from what’s on the radio.
Anywho, let’s get straight to:
Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo team up to take Las Vegas in a dizzying and sickening display of hedonism.
If you’ve ever wanted to know what the definition of a “Cult Movie” is, simply watch this film. All the important aspects are ticked off:
- Difficult Plotting
- Challenging/Weird Subject Matter
- Endlessly Quotable
- Endlessly Memorable Scenes
- Over all Bizarre Atmosphere
That is of course is not a comprehensive list, as “Cult” is hardly a specific genre and is endlessly debatable but we’re not getting into that semantic nonsense here. As anyone who has watched this movie will agree that it is nothing less than a quintessential “Cult Movie”.
Considering the subject matter of psychedelic drugs and changes in perception it was crucial that the right director was chosen for the job, thankfully the producers made the right choice in selecting the great Terry Gilliam whose wonderful imagination is one of the film’s biggest boons. It is important to note (for fans of Gilliam) that despite the producer’s having a strong direction for the movie in mind, the film feels right at home in his repertoire. Its filled with his distinct visual style (wide angle close ups, bizarre production design), his auteur embellishments (like building a set at twice the scale for a single shot), and strong grip on tonal pacing (scenes go from humorous to disturbing quite naturally).
With lines like:
“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold…”
It’s very easy to declare Johnny Depp as the scene stealer, and his lines certainly get the most attention. However i believe Benicio Del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo is the real revelation of the movie, Depp plays the straight man (as straight as a strung out junkie can be at least) to Del Toro’s depravity. With many scenes starting out as playing for laughs (as Duke experiences/narrates them), but suddenly taking a left turn to savagery as Gonzo starts to become unhinged. The physicality of the actors also plays into this classic comedy trope, with Depp being short, gangly, bald, and slimy versus Del Toro being tall, fat, hairy, and vicious. Honestly Del Toro (as he usually does) completely disappears into his character, with scene after scene having him become unrecognisable as he dips into ever deeper layers of depravity.
The movie is saddled with a rather weak narrative. As the set up and reason for Duke and Gonzo to go to Vegas is quickly discarded (both times) and thus it quickly dissolves into a series of drug induced vignettes peppered with reflections on the counter/hippy movement of the preceding decade. The film’s first half is easily the strongest in terms of narrative cohesion and memorable scenes, with the second half feeling a bit too meandering at times (particularly when the plot completely dissolves in the last 20 or so minutes).
The two leads are honestly never less than vile and thus can easily start to wear on a viewer who doesn’t enjoy seeing two junkies get high and get low numerous times, and the film’s almost total focus on their interactions makes dealing with them the biggest obstacle in enjoying the film. The case can also be made that it encourages drug use via its character’s various antics, however that would ignore the film’s equal emphasis on the very ugly side of drugs.
Slipping in tone from humorous to vile, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the quintessential “Cult Movie”. It’s challenging, endlessly quotable, and certainly memorable. While it certainly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and despite its narrative wrinkles it is most definitely worth a watch for those interested in experiencing something new or unexpected.
OUT OF FIVE
Of course i have a favorite scene, what kind of fan do you take me for?!