There are some films that give you a story that draws you in and makes you feel as though you’ve been let into the personal lives of a small group of people and allowed a look at their very soul. There are some films that show us things we never thought we could ever see, the greatest of fantasies and the strangest of worlds made possible through clever special effects, believable acting and ingenious writing. And then there are films that feel like you’ve been dragged through a series of events speeding past at a hundred miles per hour, at the end of which you haven’t a clue how you got here, but you know you enjoyed every second. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas sits firmly in the third category. It’s a film that looks unpleasant, makes only the loosest sense and features a couple of low-lifes who do little more than shout and take powerful narcotics for nearly two hours. Yet, this ranks as one of my favourite films of all time, simply because of the atmosphere and feeling that it creates for the viewer, both of which feel like you’ve just been on a wide ride that will stick with you for the rest of your life. Hunter S. Thompson’s book (on which this film is based) is one of the most important works of American literature, and Terry Gilliam is a master of the mind-bending movie, and this adaptation maintains the high standard he started with Brazil and 12 Monkeys, despite being a box office failure.
We being with our “heroes” driving their red convertible through the Nevada desert, en route to the lovely Las Vegas – the journalist Raoul Duke (a near-unrecognisable balding Johnny Depp as an ersatz Hunter S. Thompson) and his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (a heavy-set Benicio del Toro, thought to be based on Thompson’s friend Oscar Zeta Acosta) – equipped with little more than a typewriter and enough drugs to kill a small continent. Upon arriving under the influence of L.S.D., Duke is hallucinating violently as they check into their hotel, seeing the patrons as a rabble of frolicking humanoid reptiles. Technically the two are in town to cover a dirt bike race in the desert, but this is so minor an aspect that I can almost neglect to mention it. The two give up on the race almost immediately and instead hit the Las Vegas Strip, the barrage of neon lighting and costumed performers playing havoc with the mescaline-addled pair. Indeed, Gonzo is so disturbed by the experience that Duke later finds him fully-clothed in the bath, demanding that Duke throw the record player in with him when the song playing (Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit) reaches its crescendo. Duke refuses and an angry Gonzo leaves in the night, but not before leaving Duke with an enormous room service bill. Duke attempts to leave Las Vegas but an encounter with Officer Gary Busey persuades him to turn back into town.
Returning to Vegas, Duke finds that Gonzo has returned with an extremely intoxicated Christina Ricci, and demands that he get rid of her before she comes down off her trip and realises that she has been drugged and essentially kidnapped. Charged with reporting on the local district attorney’s anti-drugs convention, Duke and Gonzo attend a hilariously out of touch seminar on marijuana (“A dope fiend refers to the reefer butt as a roach, because it resembles a cockroach.”), all the while snorting cocaine in a crowd comprised of a few hundred police officers. Heading back to their hotel to calm down, Duke ill-advisedly doses up on the fictional drug adrenochrome, a chemical extracted from a living person’s adrenal gland. After a spectacular hallucination of Gonzo becoming Satan himself and giving the most inaccurate biology lesson in the history of the world. Awakening to scenes of utter ruin, Duke struggles to recall a single event from the previous day, but is unable to recall why he is dressed in wellington boots and a lizard’s tail with a tape recorder duct-taped to his body. The tape itself reveals scant details of what happened beyond Duke impersonating a police officer and severely irritating a local waitress, and he eventually drops the matter. He drives Gonzo to the airport and drives back off into the desert and away from Las Vegas and back towards California.
In writing this synopsis, I’ve realised that what I’ve just described resembles nothing more than your average “stoner” movie fare – a series of random events with no rhyme or reason, seemingly crafted to disgust and entertain only the immature or the inebriated. This is really integral to why this film is so good, as it is nigh-impossible to explain why it is good or what actually happens. The protagonists achieve precisely nothing beyond emptying their Suitcase O’ Drugs and there is barely a plot to the whole thing. Even the film itself isn’t nice to look at, full of awkward camera angles, disturbing imagery and incomprehensible (yet hilarious) dialogue. But all of these things when combined create something more than just a film; they create an experience unlike anything I’ve seen before or since. Both Depp and Del Toro are spectacular as characters who are such quivering piles of nerves and barely restrained hysteria, looking exactly as you’d expect two men who have spent the better part of decades with mind-altering substances pumping through their veins to look. Despite Duke’s protests to the contrary, this film feels very much like you’ve spent two hours on a very strange and unrelenting acid trip, all without a narcotic in sight. And lest I forget, it also has one of the greatest soundtracks in movie history, featuring the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane and Dead Kennedys. Nothing I can say can replicate the ride this film will offer you, and so I can only recommend that you see this film as soon as possible and let yourself be swept up in it.