In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) Depp takes on iconic gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson and his drug-fuelled road trip to 1970s Las Vegas with his friend and attorney Dr. Gonzo (aka Oscar Zeta Acosta) . What initially started as photo assignment for Sports Illustrated, to write captions for the annual Mint 400 off-road race, becomes a debauched lost weekend in which Raoul Duke (aka HST) and his “Samoan” lawyer burn their way through a suitcase full of drugs.
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can. The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge, and I knew we’d get into that rotten stuff pretty soon.
Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s 1972 book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream the unique combination of the source material, Depp’s manic acting, and director Terry Gilliam’s unique eye behind the camera, the result is something behold.
On the surface it feels like a nonsensical, disjointed, drug-induced hallucination that can leave you scratching your head, but on closer examination there is a method to the madness in Thompson’s confrontation of the American Dream and what lies beneath. In one scene Duke’s writing about the height of the counter-culture movement in 1965 and how far they’ve come (fallen) since then. Images of social unrest are contrasted through out the movie (Vietnam war protests and News footage of bombings) with the ‘bread and circuses’ mentality that is the reason for the very existence of Las Vegas.
Depp digs deep for his transformation into Hunter S. Thompson’s alter ego Raoul Duke. From living in Thompson’s basement for a period of time to get to know him and his quirks, to allowing Thompson to shave his head, to borrowing vintage pieces of HST’s clothing for the actual movie, Depp knew no boundaries in his effort to become the character.
Ah, devil ether. It makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel. Total loss of all basic motor skills. Blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue. The mind recoils in horror, unable to communicate with the spinal column. Which is interesting because you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.
It’s ultimately one of my favourite Depp performances watching not only his manic facial ticks and physical acting while pretending to be under the influence of drugs, but also the rapport between him and Benico Del Toro on screen. I can’t imagine how they delivered some of the scenes and managed to stay in character.
Definitely not for everyone, but anyone with appreciation of satire, Gilliam, or Depp’s acting should definitely give this ago. If you haven’t been exposed to the world of Hunter S. Thompson before now, this is a fucked up and brilliant spot to begin.
I also read a great biography a couple of years ago by the artist Ralph Steadman called – The Joke’s Over – Ralph Steadman on Hunter S. Thompson which highlights the pair’s working relationship as well as provides a nice coda to Thompson’s suicide in 2005.
By the Numbers
- 3rd film in which Depp’s character wears glasses.
- 4th film in which Depp’s character wears a distinctive hat or hats.
- 1st film in which Depp shaved his head for the role.
- The film was referenced in the 2011 animated movie Rango (Starring Johnny Depp) when the title character wearing a very HST-esque shirt lands on the windshield of a red convertible.
Next up in the rotation is the 1999 Roman Polanski film The Ninth Gate which features Depp as a rare book collector that has a run in with the supernatural and occult when he goes looking for a couple of lost books.