Monday, December 5, 2011
Day 5: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
"Dogs fucked the Pope, no fault of mine."
Terry Gilliam is one of those directors that you can almost always be assured that no matter what the story, topic or subject matter of his films is, you'll be seeing a unique and visually distinctive film every time out of the gate. His films are also notoriously plagued by production delays, studio heads blocking release, and even the death of one of his stars mid-production. The Onion brilliantly parodied him with their article "Terry Gilliam Barbeque Plagued By Production Delays."
One thing that almost all of his films share as well is an almost unrelenting pessimism in regards to humanity and it's ability to redeem itself for several thousand years worth of selfishness. This makes his first and only partnership with Hunter S. Thompson a match made in heaven. Their shared hopelessness at mankind's irredeemability would seem to make this one hell of a downer, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this is Gilliam's most wildly fun movie since Baron Munchausen (far and away my favorite Gilliam film). Johnny Depp stars as Thompson, here using the alias Raoul Duke. This is Depp the actor unhinged, one of those go-for-broke performances that make him an endlessly watchable and enjoyable actor. It's 1971 and Duke is traveling to Las Vegas for a dirtbike race called the Mint 400 with his lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Benicio DelToro) who may or may not be Samoan.
The plot is almost incidental, and Gilliam's desire to ensure that the film was not marketed as "two guys on a wacky weekend in Vegas" movie was undermined by Universal and ultimately hurt the movie's word of mouth on its release. It has since gained a considerable following, an almost tell-tale sign that a film is ahead of it's time. Considering that Las Vegas is part of the title, it's strange that they are only there for about 45 minutes of the film's two hour run time, but here Vegas is used as a metaphor for the excess and gaudiness that America adopted in the latter half of the twentieth century. This isn't so much a movie about any one thing as it is a movie about everything.
The opening of the film is a total bait-and-switch. I was in college when the film first came out and I mistakenly thought it was a film about drugs, but, as in most of Thompson's work, drugs are just his way of bucking the establishment and scaring off the squares who wouldn't get what his work was really about. America has sold out and Depp as Thompson as Duke is the only voice of reason in this crazy world. You almost get lulled into a false sense of this film being the exact thing Gilliam was trying to ensure people didn't think it was. Within 30 minutes though, the film will have weeded out the element in the audience that is thoroughly unprepared for what the film is going to be.
The two main actors' commitment to their roles is indicative of their level of talent, and they match one another every beat along the way. DelToro's performance reaches heights of comic absurdity in his White Rabbit, bathtub, acid-freakout scene, and then plunges the depths of true scariness in his encounter with Ellen Barkin late in the film, when he turns all of his previous wackiness into something genuinely frightening. Depp also goes for broke here and his scene with Gary Busey as a highway patrol officer is transcendent in its comical heights and desperate lows.
Gilliam is a director forever doomed to be under-appreciated by the masses, but I don't think he'd have it any other way. His highest grossing movie is 12 Monkeys, and it's success is probably more attributable to it's stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt, but even that one scared off audiences after it's first weekend. Gilliam fits the definition of a director who is not for everyone, but those that get him and what he does, love it (I will point to Brothers Grimm as an example of him trying to make a movie for a mass audience and failing miserably). Fear and Loathing fits firmly in his filmography as a film that couldn't have been made by any other director, which I think is the highest compliment you can pay any of his films.
Tomorrow I'll be reviewing Brian DePalma's 1981 paranoia thriller Blow Out with John Travolta, Nancy Allen & John Lithgow.