Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Criterion 4K Review: Toxic

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas Criterion 4K Review: Toxic

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the movie, plays very differently in 2024 than it did in 1998, and that’s to its benefit. Certainly, the idea of a major studio like Universal releasing a film by director Terry Gilliam with a cast of A-listers (even as a negative pick-up!) who made, essentially, an extended drug hallucination based on a Hunter S. Thompson book about indulging in debauchery while reporting on a race and a police convention, is almost as dated as the notion of a mid-budget movie of any stripe from a studio. But its downbeat tone of an elegy for the ’60s was all wrong for audiences in the ’90s, with Bill Clinton in the White House embodying the fantasy of a rascally, womanizing former radical having fun with power against all the anti-sex prudes.

Only two years before Fear and Loathing hit theaters, The People vs. Larry Flynt depicted the head of Hustler magazine as a player and a hero for, among other things, sleeping with every stripper in his employ. The notion it’s systemic sexual harassment never occurs to that film, in which Woody Harrelson plays the pornographer as just a fun-loving guy, once again against all the anti-sex prudes.

After Mash

Reckless guys living as they pleased were celebrated in the culture then. Fear and Loathing initially fits, as it urges you to laugh both at and with Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), the lightly fictionalized literary avatars of Thompson and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, getting all kinds of messed up and doing as they please with no consequences. Gradually, Gilliam intentionally turns it toxic and hellish towards the end (he suggests it’s as much his reaction to the ’90s as the book was to the ’70s; here in the 2020s, BOTH decades are sorely missed!).

At times it plays like a funhouse mirror version, very literally, of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H – if Hawkeye and Trapper’s counterculture rebel personas felt like a necessary antidote to war and the military structure, Raoul and Gonzo’s similar approaches feel less so, in rebelling against reality itself. Before The Hangover became a franchise depicting a far milder scenario as an accidental nightmare, Fear and Loathing showed it as both a self-inflicted adventure and wound. Just like so much drug use is.

Times a’ Changin’

It should be noted that Gilliam, not exactly renowned for great treatment of actresses, demonstrates the toxic side of the lead duo’s behavior by basically using women as props for their awfulness to emerge. Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, and Ellen Barkin make extended cameos to be terrorized by Gonzo and terrify Raoul. In one of the movie’s most uncomfortable moments of dialogue, Raoul offers up a slippery slope argument when his companion may have committed statutory rape, suggesting that if he’s okay with that, maybe they should pimp the girl out to a bunch of cops. He’s using extreme reverse psychology, but if you can watch that scene and still think these are the good guys, well…you might be more like the ’90s audience member who didn’t connect to what was actually going on.

That said, the movie is very much Duke’s subjective point of view, so if the women seem like props (as do most of the men, for that matter), that’s just as likely a comment on his attitude as Gilliam’s. He’s telling us a story that’s unreliable, from a perception of reality that’s unreliable, to make the points about a dying American Dream that he wants to make – and a time when a journalist working for a major publication could get effed up on the company’s dime and write whatever, so long as it made for a good read. In the ’90s, that was still a thing too. ( I can attest from semi-personal experience.)

Men in the Mirror?

Nostalgia plays many tricks – Hunter Thompson’s arch-nemesis was Richard Nixon, and in the Clinton era, Tricky Dick’s brand of Republican rage seemed to be dead or impotent in the happy face of Slick Willie. What was a ’90s audience to make of the cultural desperation that anti-war protesters, black panthers, and hippies felt in the ’60s or the transition to the Me Generation of the ’70s? Post-Bush, post (and possibly pre-again) Trump, after the aughts economic crisis and Internet-based takedown of print journalism in its near-entirety, Duke and Gonzo’s paranoid nihilism feels resonant again, just as we understand from observing Internet trolls how such anxious thinking can breed toxicity.

What’s odd as an external factor is that Depp and Gilliam haven’t necessarily seemed to have taken it all to heart these days. Depp befriended Thompson, then lifestyle-wise, almost tried to become him; he says on the commentary track that he doesn’t usually go full-method, but couldn’t shake Hunter as a character. Playing another of Thompson’s avatars in 2011’s The Rum Diary, he met Amber Heard, and entered into the most publicly inflammatory relationship of his career. Thompson killed himself at the age of 67 before the addictions could morph into terminal illnesses; Depp is now 61, and stories swirl about his alleged bad habits. Gilliam, for years seen as a victim of mean studios stifling his vision, has seen more and more stories emerge about his reckless nature and lack of safety on sets, though he seems to have been much more efficient on this particular project.

Fake but Accurate

Gilliam does note on the disc that people have lost the ability to believe that people can be intelligent and hopeful and nonetheless behave badly – he says it about Thompson and the characters in the movie, but it’s certainly true of him too. We still, culturally, have problems with genuinely flawed protagonists, while Thompson had no issue with the fact that he was one. Truth-tellers, it seemed to so many rebels at the time, had to be troublesome and problematic, but it’s important not to idolize the flaws over the message. Gilliam, as an artist, understands that. As a person? Ask Sarah Polley.

Nowadays, when pundits squawk about fake news, it’s because they suspect anchorpeople without original thoughts of their own are parroting falsehoods handed down by corporate interests. Gonzo journalism, in which the point was true, but the specific facts were subject to righteously angry and impaired perceptions, was a lot more fun. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a cautionary tale, yet despite everyone’s best efforts, it also now feels like a nostalgic blast for those of us whose wild days are in the rearview. We love to see these guys on screen, but we wouldn’t want to be them for the duration.

Color It Classic

1998 still had Depp at peak Depp, and Del Toro has never been otherwise. One-eyed cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, who went on to shoot every subsequent Gilliam film, uses unique styles and lighting effects for each different type of substance abuse, and if you’ve ever been intoxicated by anything, at least one will ring a bell.

The 4K transfer, supervised by Gilliam, had a real theoretical challenge, as scenes often transition from near-total darkness to loud colors, then desert, then entirely different shades of weird, but it all remains sharp and visible, with the high dynamic range compensating effortlessly from color clashes that could have caused bleeds on inferior copies. Blacks, yellows, and blues are sharper than on the Blu-ray, and reds and whites are subdued. What once looked like a faded film from the ’70s now pops like it’s showing the actual ’70s. Volume range isn’t quite as perfect – if you turn it up loud enough to catch every Depp and Del Toro mumble, there’s a less than zero chance the next scene will deafen you with a leveled-up rock song. That’s very likely intended but not necessarily neighbor-friendly.

Dream Away

As a child, I liked Gilliam’s family fantasy films best. As a middle-aged adult with stints in print journalism, vague memories of expense accounts, and many trips to Vegas under my belt, Fear and Loathing speaks to me more than it ever did before, and of all the latter-period Gilliam films now feels like the crown jewel. He perfected controlled chaos with two performers who were extremely game and used the drug haze as a perfect pretext to merge fantasy and reality for his favorite blend. Early ’90s political correctness, before it became an easy buzzword, was an unholy alliance of scolds on both the left and right, and Gilliam wanted to offend all of them while still advocating for a better world. That’s a tough mix and one he himself doesn’t always get right. With Thompson’s words as his guide, though, he nailed it in ’98.

The movie does largely omit one key detail – Thompson brought Acosta with him on the initial Vegas assignment to cover a race so that the two of them could talk about a murder case that the former didn’t feel safe discussing around Acosta’s bodyguards and allies. All involved felt that an unresolved plot strand would create a narrative tension that couldn’t be resolved satisfactorily – and anyway, this is the story of “Raoul” and “Gonzo,” and not Thompson and Acosta, wink-wink. Even though they both swore to their dying days that the book was true, the movie doesn’t have to be, and since it’s not a documentary, inherently isn’t.

History and Mystery

Fortunately for the history buffs and everyone else, the bonus disc comes loaded with extras to place the movie in context. Video footage of the real Acosta reading from his books doesn’t resemble his crazed movie counterpart in the least, though the audio of Thompson reading a tribute to him resembles Del Toro’s performance pretty well. A 1978 British documentary reuniting Thompson with artist Ralph Steadman desperately wants to be more radical in form than it’s allowed to be; English actor Edward Judd’s flat readings from the book make Depp’s even more impressive. The young-ish Hunter back then tried to present as a more normal family guy, trapped by his persona and already planning a funeral that wouldn’t happen until decades later. Nowadays, we’d identify the behavior he displays here as evident panic attacks, which he self-medicates with weed and drunk driving.

The elder Hunter appears in other segments, visiting the movie set and giving Depp a witch doctor mask as a present. This man feels more fully merged with the Duke persona – he’s a crazy grandpa who likes to mess with people and test them. A young Depp reads some of their back and forth letters on camera, which evince a heavy level of insult humor that steps right up to the line of personal offense before tactical retreats.

Audio Files

Thompson is the star of one of three commentary tracks, available on both the included 4K and Blu-ray discs. He’s kept somewhat on track by his assistant and producer Laila Nabulsi, a longtime friend, though he frequently veers off topic and even takes phone calls while recording. He screams loudly and randomly and has that ’90s bro sense of humor that got James Gunn briefly fired from Disney – the one where dudes might call all their friends gay pedophiles, using less neutral language than that. Thompson’s dead and wouldn’t care if you took offense anyhow, but his mind might be blown that Pizzagate conspiracists could take such comments and his completely invented drug, “adrenochrome,” seriously.

Gilliam’s solo track includes a joke about sex with orangutans, though if you’re watching this particular movie, that seems par for the course. The rest of his track is what you’d hope from any director: a detailed monologue about how he made the film, what he was thinking, and stuff you might not notice. Nabulsi, Depp, and Del Toro do the third, though not together in the same room; this results in them mainly complimenting their absent colleagues constantly, but there’s good info in there too.

If you normally skip still galleries, of which this has a few, don’t miss the one of original Steadman artwork for the Rolling Stone articles – it’s freaky and amazing. The booklet’s essay by J. Hoberman isn’t the greatest, but the snatches of Thompson’s essays are worth the read. The battle over the movie’s screenplay credit is some Gilliam-esque absurdity, given that the script is basically just the book, reorganized – an audio discussion of it is followed by a short film by Gilliam that made fun of the whole process.

Elegy for a Dream

Gilliam originally wanted to end the film with a happy scene, one where Depp as Duke finds a pleasant, honest gas station/bar, run by a wholesome family, but his suspicions ruin it for him. Test audiences didn’t get it – they’d been so corrupted, as the director puts it, that they, too, were suspicious of the good people! That scene, featuring Rance Howard, appears here along with two other deleted scenes with optional commentary.

There’s a lot to take in here, but once you have, you should feel absolutely immersed in this perfect artistic confluence of the ’70s and ’90s. Too many emulators of Thompson (and Gilliam) copy just the bad behavior and forget about the civil disobedience, rebellion, and calling out of hypocrisy that was entwined with it. The Criterion set, now available in stores, embodies both.

Grade: 10/10

Under ComingSoon’s review policy, 10 is a masterpiece. This is the rare release that transcends genre and must be experienced by all fans of the medium.

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