Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)

Directed by Terry Gilliam


I haven’t seen a lot of movies from the 90s, but I think I’ve seen many of the most influential ones (Forrest GumpThe Shawshank RedemptionPulp FictionMagnoliaBoogie NightsSaving Private RyanReservoir Dogs, and a lot of others, maybe even American Pie), and I want to say that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the best movie from that decade.

There are obvious connections between this movie and 1969’s Easy Rider.  They’re both about two guys doing a ton of drugs through the desert, and their journey is ultimately a symbol of a period of time and a cultural movement.  In Easy Rider, the main duo’s journey takes place within the time they’re commenting on, and their eventual demise is a metaphor as well as a prediction for where they and we are headed.  But Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a look back on a similar period of time.  The film is set in the 70s, and Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) feel like benign tumors surgically removed from the counter-culture movement and left to rot, except that somewhere along the way they started living.

Duke is a writer sent out to Vegas to cover a dirt bike race, and Dr. Gonzo is his lawyer.  Rampant and excessive doesn’t begin to describe their drug use.  At first, the drugs they ingest feel romantic, like they are seeing a part of the world unseen by everyone else, but it quickly crosses a line and becomes nightmarish.  Around the middle of the film, Duke considers the world they came from and where they are now, drawing lines between his story and the story of America.  He describes what it was like to be in San Francisco in the mid 60s and how there was love and purpose everywhere.  But somewhere along the line, that wave crested, and the group gatherings disbanded.  Those people still exit, of course, like Duke, but now they’re on their own, swimming against a current rather than with a temporary current made by like-minded and like-willed individuals.

It’s like this: the hippie movement in San Francisco was a wave that picked up steam as it picked up people.  You joined this thing and were submerged in it, bringing yourself into a new world.  But once that ended, that new world still existed within the minds of these people.  The drugs, once mind-altering and beauty-magnifying, became toxic.  Picture someone entering this movement like a young Elvis Presley, and then when the movement is over, they come staggering out like the old, bloated Elvis Presley not long before his death.  Duke entered this movement and came out bloated, his mind swollen and his body shaking.

He’s like a messenger, carrying the story of this new world on for others, but he could just as easily die before spreading the word.

So Duke’s journey, a mostly unplotted trip through Vegas and damaged hotel rooms, is all metaphorical.  He took something too far.  What started with a good idea became too strong.  He pushes the limits of his drug use and his own insanity as if convinced there’s something to be discovered right around the corner.  The problem is that he never seems to uncover it, and he ruins himself in the process.  It’s like there are a bunch of people who kept pushing themselves further and further, hoping to find what they sensed was right around the corner, but then their bodies and minds can’t handle the push, like climbers braving the altitude of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

It turns out, I think, that the only thing that could push us around that corner was time, and Duke seems to have found peace at the end of the film only because enough time has passed to reflect on his drug-fueled adventure and not because of the drugs themselves.

Now, to be honest I don’t know what else to say about this film.  It’s like Easy Rider in the sense that it seems to reject a bunch of movie norms.  Where Easy Rider felt nonchalant, though, Fear and Loathing feels much more intentional.  In the former film, the filmmaking style felt hands-off, like they just let the camera run and got what they wanted.  This is except for the climactic drug trip in New Orleans which was stylistically full of purpose, meant to distort your view of the world to reflect the view of Hopper’s and Fonda’s characters.  Fear and Loathing is pretty much entirely like that New Orleans drug sequence.  The distorted perspective, wide angle lenses, canted angles and trip lighting rigs isn’t hands-off in anyway.  It has just as much purpose as the mise en scene in a Hitchcock movie.  This is a movie with a point of view, as if considering itself the final authority on the counter-culture movement whereas Easy Rider was made with anticipation of where that movement was headed.

In other words, Easy Rider was like an astronaut describing his feelings, dread, excitement and anticipations of reaching the moon as we were on our way there for the first time, and Fear and Loathing is Neil Degrasse Tyson explaining what we learned from the moon landing and al subsequent missions to outer space.  There is a wider field of vision incorporated in this movie.  The riders in Easy Rider never felt like they really knew where they were going.  They were all about the journey, and their deaths are unexpected and sudden.  Though Duke and Gonzo might not have known where they were going in this movie, the story felt like it did.  The script knew that we would end with Duke cruising down the highway dragging the American flag, like a counter-culture missionary.

The drugs use, crazy cinematography and heightened emotional states of this story were all designed to help get us to that final scene of Duke on the highway so we could understand where he came from and where he was headed.  Easy Rider could have ended in any number of ways, and it doesn’t feel likely that, if we rewound time and let them make that movie again, it would have ended the same way.  Maybe they go with another ending on a whim because the original ending felt slightly whimsical.  To try to cap this off, that 1969 film felt like an experiment, and though much of Fear and Loathing looks experimental, it’s a statement, a conclusion rather than a thesis.


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