Sunday, May 26, 2013
2013 Cannes Marathon: Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas
(Played in Competition for the Palme d’Or at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival)
Based on the novel by Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is the story of an eccentric journalist who goes to Las Vegas with his attorney where they aim to go after the American Dream through a haze of drugs. Directed by Terry Gilliam and screenplay by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni with credited contributions by Alex Cox and Tod Davies, the film is a wild look into the world of Hunter S. Thompson’s autobiographical journey that revolves around all sorts of crazy antics involving psychedelics, animals, Barbra Streisand paintings, and all sorts of weird shit. Starring Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a strange yet exhilarating film from Terry Gilliam.
The film revolves two men on a strange combination of drugs as they go to Las Vegas where a sportswriter named Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) is supposed to cover a motorcycle race nearby. Instead, he and his attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) wreak havoc through a haze of drugs all over Las Vegas in search of the American Dream where a lot of crazy things happen. During the course of their stay in Las Vegas, they trash hotel rooms, harass tourists, threaten hotel staff members, defy authority, scare the shit out of a few people, encounter lizard people, create chaos, and do everything from acid to ether all in an attempt to bring the spirit of the 1960s to Las Vegas. Yet, they end up facing the harsh realities of the world around them as they start to lose control of their drug habits leading to some very troubling consequences.
The screenplay by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni plays up to Hunter S. Thompson’s strange but freewheeling narrative as it is told from the perspective of Raoul Duke who is trying to write an article while causing havoc with Dr. Gonzo in Las Vegas. Yet, the screenplay also features these moments where reality and surrealism clash as the two men surround themselves with decadence while having the televisions on that display grim reports about the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, it plays to the two men’s desire to bring the spirit of the 60s with its psychedelics and other substances to Las Vegas as they encounter all sorts of trouble where they would end up staying at the Flamingo Hotel during an anti-drug convention for narcotics officers.
There isn’t much of a narrative that happens in the script as it is more about this escalation of decadence where things get crazier and more surreal as it plays to Thompson’s experience in the form of the Raoul Duke character. The Duke character is the man who is trying to do something in the course of his stay in Las Vegas but he’s often distracted by his surroundings as he’s often under the influence of drugs as the things he see may seem real to him but to the people outside of him and Dr. Gonzo, nothing is happening. The Dr. Gonzo character is someone who can be the straight man but is also someone far more aggressive and violent as he carries a gun and a knife as Duke is the only person that can control him. Yet, they would be a menace to the people they encounter in the course of the film as it would include a TV news reporter (Cameron Diaz), a young girl (Christina Ricci) who likes to paint portraits of Barbra Streisand), a young hitchhiker (Tobey Maguire), and all sorts of people who would become victims of the duo or those that would freak those two out in their drug-induced state.
The direction of Terry Gilliam is very wild in the fact that Gilliam wanted to create something that was unpredictable as if the whole film was a drug trip. The direction is filled with a lot of slanted camera angles and some very low-level camera placements to create the sense of two men lost on drugs as they wreak havoc in Las Vegas. The city itself is a character of the film where it is shot on location where Gilliam wanted to maintain that sense of disconnect where Vegas is a world where people go there to relax and escape from the chaos of what was happening in America. Yet, having Duke and Dr. Gonzo bring that chaos to Vegas just adds something that is very comical but also scary at times because no one knows what they will do in their haze of decadence.
The direction also contains some moments of surrealism where the men are on drugs as they see things moving around them as if they’re on a drug trip while some of the places they go to like a circus. It’s as if Vegas is under the influence of drugs where the decadence goes from classy to just surreal as everything is becoming a mess as well as reflective of what is happening in America where Duke and Dr. Gonzo often have the American flag around them. The film does take a darker turn towards the end where Gilliam decides to pull back the craziness to reveal the outcome of the chaos the two men create. Even as it plays to Duke’s own disillusionment as he realizes that times are indeed changing but the period he had been a part of is truly over. Overall, Gilliam creates a very chaotic yet spectacular film about two men chasing the American Dream.
Cinematographer Nicola Pecorini does brilliant work with the film‘s cinematography from the sunny look of the Las Vegas daytime exteriors to the use of stylish lights to play up that sense of craziness that is the city with its casinos and hotels. Editor Lesley Walker does amazing work with the editing to play up the sense of style with some jump-cuts and montages that captures the sense of craziness that occurs throughout the film. Production designer Alex McDowell, with set decorator Nancy Haigh and art director Chris Gorack, does fantastic work with the set pieces from the look of the hotel suites the men stay in plus some set pieces in the circus casino and other parts of Vegas.
Costume designer Julie Weiss does wonderful work with the costumes from the clothes that Duke wears that plays to the wild nature of Hunter S. Thompson to the more ragged look of Dr. Gonzo while the rest of the clothes are stylish to play that up world of the early 1970s. Visual effects supervisor Kent Houston does excellent work with the way the carpet moves at time to some of the backdrops that is created as well as the look of the lounge lizards the men encounter that is created by Rob Bottin. Sound editor Peter Pennell does superb work with the sound to capture the sense of chaos of the city as well as some sound effects to play up that world of surrealism. The film’s music by Ray Cooper is terrific for its mixture of rock and kitsch jazz to play up the world of Las Vegas in all of its craziness while the soundtrack features an array of music from the Rolling Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Tom Jones, Janis Joplin and the Big Brother Holding Company, the Yardbirds, Bob Dylan, Three Dog Night, Buffalo Springfield, the Youngbloods, Debbie Reynolds, Perry Como, and a crazy cover of Elvis Presley’s Viva Las Vegas by the Dead Kennedys.
The casting by Margery Simkin is phenomenal for the ensemble that is created specifically for this film. Notable appearances include Katherine Helmond as a hotel desk clerk, Christopher Meloni as the Flamingo hotel desk clerk, Jenette Goldstein as a Flamingo hotel maid, Verne Troyer as a waiter at the circus casino, Harry Dean Stanton as a judge in a dream sequence, Gary Busey as a highway patrol officer confronting Duke for speeding, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea as a hippie Duke encountered at the Matrix club, Michael Jeter as a convention speaker, Lyle Lovett as a road person, Penn Jilette as a carnie talker, Mark Harmon as a reporter covering the race, and Hunter S. Thompson as himself in a cameo in a scene at the Matrix club.
Other memorable small roles include Tobey Maguire as a freaked-out hitchhiker, Christina Ricci as a young woman who paints portraits of Barbra Streisand, Cameron Diaz as a TV news reporter Dr. Gonzo tries to flirt with, Craig Bierko as a crazy photographer Duke was assigned with, and Ellen Barkin as a shell-shocked diner waitress Dr. Gonzo threatens near the end of the film.
The film’s best performances definitely belong to the duo of Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro in their respective roles as Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo. In Dr. Gonzo, del Toro brings a craziness to his character as a very troubled man who can play straight when he’s not on drugs but is still very dangerous while he’s much more troubled under the influence. Depp does amazing work in channeling a lot of the attributes of Thompson in the Duke character as someone who is definitely paranoid while trying to comprehend everything that is happening around him. The two together make a fantastic combo of actors as they provide all sorts of humor and terror that allows them to create some of the best performances of their careers.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a fucked-up yet phenomenal film from Terry Gilliam that features outstanding performances from Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro. The film is definitely one of Gilliam’s great films as well as a very faithful yet crazy companion piece for Hunter S. Thompson’s book. While it’s definitely not a film for everyone, it’s a film that explores the world of the drug culture at its most decadent in the most decadent place in the world. In the end, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a crazy yet sensational wild ride from Terry Gilliam.
Terry Gilliam Films: Jabberwocky - Time Bandits - Brazil - The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - The Fisher King - 12 Monkeys - The Brothers Grimm - Tideland - The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus - The Zero Theorem - The Auteurs #38: Terry Gilliam
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