Like an unstoppable, drug addled fever dream, echoing from some forgotten, dimly lit, neon dimension, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' comes seeping out, oozy and erratic, from the troubled minds of two mad geniuses, director Terry Gilliam, and author Hunter S. Thompson. An unflinching, darkly humorous and disturbing trip through the looking glass, this adaptation of Thompson's novel of the same name, takes no prisoners and holds no punches in an unrestrained circus act of visual style. Gilliam harnesses an arsenal of filmic techniques to form maddening images which breathe colorful life into potentially unadaptable prose. With exceptional performances and a loose but methodical narrative, the film adds up to a commendable achievement that may at times seem deceptively superficial.
The story follows a journalist named Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) who serves as a stand in for author Thompson himself, and his lawyer, referred to as Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) as they navigate through the seedy carnival landscape of Las Vegas, covering stories and searching for the ever elusive "American Dream." What follows is an episodic descent into drug fueled insanity as Duke and Gonzo teeter on the edge of psychosis in the midst of greed, materialism, and depravity. Depp disappears completely into the role, becoming an eerie approximation of Hunter S. Thompson's famous alter ego. His eccentric mannerisms and speech patterns are all dead on, providing a welcome mixture of comedy and thoughtful introspection. Duke is a character who carries a sense of hopelessness. He's a man who feels the world has seen its best days, squandering the optimistic potential it once held. The character wobbles between tripped out incoherence and intelligent, cynical musings, and Depp handles all aspects of the performance in an effortless dance of extremes. Del Toro is equally impressive as Dr. Gonzo, who also balances between fits of violent hysteria and calm eloquence. Though the story itself is thin, with no real plot or traditional character development to speak of, the segments fold into one another and add up to a greater whole, which is expanded upon by the manner in which it's all shot.
At one point, Duke narrates, "Was I just roving around in a drug frenzy of some kind, or had I really come to Las Vegas to work on a story?" and one gets the sense that Gilliam too was asking himself that very same question while making the film. There is a balancing act here between form and content and between lunacy and meaning. One might watch this film and garner no real insight from the characters' various dalliances with degeneracy, but is there actually a method to the madness? Is there really a point to the strange adventures of Duke and Gonzo? Well, yes and no.
Some of the meandering, drug induced paranoia appears to be just that, meandering and drug induced, but other scenes in the film hold greater substance. Thompson wrote about his subjects not as they really were, but as he saw them, not as they occurred, but as they appeared to him. Since he was usually under the influence of one drug or another, or perhaps several at the same time, this view was often quite unique. Gilliam evokes this same perspective with the form of his filmmaking. From wide lenses, to erratic, neon lighting and strange hyper real compositions, blocking, and camera movements, every choice is made with the intention of unsettling the audience, and putting them at a level of unease which mirrors the paranoid and distorted perspective of the film's main characters. This stylistic choice parallels Thompson's own structural choices in his writing, all attempting to illuminate a greater truth through a psychedelic lens laced with LSD. Though some might see the visual choices as excess attempting to mask a thin plot, at its best this approach actually showcases the horrors that surround Duke and Dr. Gonzo, with a greater lucidity than a more natural and traditional take ever could. The cynical, disturbing, and satirical points that Thompson makes in his writing are now made through images that take on the same biting wit and madness of his words. Gilliam has created a work that respects the source material while still carving a cinematic identity of its own. Though at times scenes can appear unnecessary and bizarre, with no real purpose, that stark, visceral shift from reality is actually the purpose, providing a strange and unique perspective that could only be formed in the world of cinema.
In the end, 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' is a wholly unique and original take on difficult material, one that still manages to remain a remarkably faithful adaptation. Though no film could really capture Thompson's writing completely, Gilliam has perhaps provided us with the best effort we're likely to ever get. Depp and Del Toro give fearless and impressive performances, and the visual style is relentless and powerful. The story may appear thin and at times incoherent or meaningless, but there are indeed deeper observations layered beneath the murky puddles of filth, and glittering, lonely lights, exposing the angst and desperation of a generation of dreams deferred. Though certainly not for everyone, there are rewards here for those brave enough to take the journey.
Presented with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the video quality here looks to accurately represent the movie. As discussed, this film is a visual explosion of style that creates an otherworldly, carnival show appearance. This stylistic choice, though fitting, isn't always exactly pleasant to look at.
A natural layer of grain is present throughout. Colors can vary wildly, faithfully reproducing the film's various looks and deliberate choices. Some scenes pop, and offer a great sense of detail and depth, while others are more murky and understated. Contrast is usually high, and blacks are deep.
Overall, the video here is faithful to the movie. With its harsh and intentionally wild color palette and lighting, the transfer can appear a bit manic, but that's simply the nature of the source. Criterion has done a good job preserving the director's intentions.
The movie is provided with an English 2.0 DTS-HD MA track and an optional English 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, with English SDH subtitles. Both tracks serve the film well with crisp, clean dialogue. Well, as crisp and clean as mumbled insanity can be. There is an overall lack of fidelity though, with both tracks exhibiting a thin quality.
Dynamic range is mostly flat but balance between elements is good. Bass does kick in during some of the livelier sequences in the 5.1 track but remains pretty muted in the 2.0 mix. There is some nice left and right directionality in the 2.0 track, and though mostly front loaded, the 5.1 track does have some welcome use of surrounds sending the chaotic bustle of Vegas casinos, crowds, and imaginary bats in all directions. Though never quite as impressive as one would hope, the 5.1 track does add another layer of immersion into the crazy world Gilliam and crew have created.
There were some issues reported with Criterion's original DVD release of this film, with apparent discrepancies between the 2.0 and 5.1 track that left some dialogue and effects mysteriously dropped from the 5.1 mix. Thankfully, those issues seem to have been corrected, as I noticed no missing elements in scenes that were known to exhibit this problem before.
Overall, the audio here is good but doesn't quite hold the immersive quality that a film with such wild and creative sound design should. Still, both tracks represent the movie faithfully and have no major technical issues.
Criterion has put together an extremely strong package of supplements, including three audio commentaries, various stills galleries, deleted scenes, and featurettes. The supplements are divided into two sections labeled The Film and The Source. All extras are provided in 1080i unless otherwise noted, and appear to come from mostly upconverted sources with no subtitle options. Also included in the package is a booklet featuring an essay by critic J. Hoberman and two pieces by Hunter S. Thompson.
'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas' is a disturbing and darkly humorous distillation of the American Dream. Its unrelenting style and refusal to provide easy answers may not be for everyone, but beneath its harsh exterior is an intelligent and soulful journey. The video and audio presentations are both good and serve the chaotic film well. Supplements are plentiful and informative. Overall, Criterion has done a great job with this release and fans should be pleased.