Why It Works: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Why It Works is an ongoing column which breaks down some of the most acclaimed films in history and explores what makes them so iconic, groundbreaking, and memorable.


When it comes to playing by the rules of conventional filmmaking, Terry Gilliam is about as irreverent as it gets. From his early days of making ridiculous animations for Monty Python and other media to his career as a writer, director, actor, and producer on projects both big and small, Gilliam has always kept an eye on the absurd and eschewed tradition every step of the way. Though it's one of the more mainstream films of his career, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is no exception to the rule. Featuring fairly irredeemable protagonists, a complete lack of a solid plot, and and ending that all but shrugs and says, "well, that's over," FEAR AND LOATHING would bring the words and world of Hunter S. Thompson to life and become one of the defining films of the late 1990's. Here's why it works:


“He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” – Dr. Johnson

If you can't make your characters likable, then at least make them interesting- a motto FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS pretty much lives by. That's not to say Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo aren't likable, but we're far from the traditional device of protagonists who win our hearts by doing something noble in the first act. Watching Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro's fictionalized versions of Hunter S. Thompson and Oscar Zeta Acosta is like watching your kids play in the yard; you're not sure what they're doing or why or where they got that fly swatter from, but damn if they aren't adorable. Raoul Duke and Dr. Gonzo are only as entertaining as their interactions with other characters, though, and so we have the odd hitchhiker, the devout Lucy, the flirty reporter, the lonely highway patrolman, and more creatures normal and bizarre along the way- an assortment which helps us see our two leads less as depraved maniacs and more as just two loonies in a sea of insanity.

"May I have a little kiss before you go? I'm very lonely here."


“We were somewhere around Barstow- on the edge of the desert- when the drugs began to take hold.”

Generally speaking, when a film has little in the way of plot, we still get a very clear sense of what the characters want, be it something as simple as the love of another or something more existential. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS really, really never gives us anything quite like this. Sure, there's a thinly detailed plot about Duke covering the Mint 400 motorcycle in Las Vegas, but the assignment feels more like background noise than an integral part of the story. What we do get is a series of episodes filled to the brim with stunning visuals, vaudevillian antics, peculiar interactions, and drug-fueled chaos. Moreover, as we move from place to place and trip to trip, the film never stops moving and changing, making each moment different and more intense than the last. Another rule of screenwriting is that every scene should have a clear objective and obstacle for the characters, and in a weird way, we get that, though usually the obstacle is whatever drug the duo recently consumed, and the objective is sometimes just getting to the other side of the room.

"You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug."


“A drug person can learn to cope with things like seeing their dead grandmother crawling up their leg with a knife in her teeth. But no one should be asked to handle this trip.”

After an upsetting descent into madness followed by a high speed race against time to get Dr. Gonzo to his flight, Raoul Duke comments on his companion. "There he goes. One of God's own prototypes. A high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die." Back in his shambles of a hotel room, Duke continues an earlier reflection on the high and beautiful wave of the mid-sixties, focusing now on the consequences of the aftermath. The disciples of the Acid Culture used drugs and partying to broaden their horizons and inject themselves with instant happiness, but to not consider the consequences of ignoring real life and assuming all will just work out in the end was to write one's own death warrant. As he speeds down the open highway back to Los Angeles, there's a sense that Duke is less mournful of a time long past and more relived to have survived it and optimistic to delve into the next chapter of the strange and magical human experience.

Gilliam liked that revealing Johnny Depp as bald "took away his f*ckability."


“There was only one road back to L.A.- U.S. Interstate 15. Just a flat-out high speed burn through Baker and Barstow and Berdoo. Then onto the Hollywood Freeway and straight on into frantic oblivion. Safety. Obscurity. Just another freak in the freak kingdom.”

Understandably, the chaotic nature of FEAR AND LOATHING can be a huge point against the film for first time viewers, as it just feels to some like sensory overload without a sense of direction. The real reward comes on repeat viewings, where details, jokes, and philosophies reveal themselves or come more clearly into focus. Perhaps most impressive is the fact that Terry Gilliam, along with fellow screenwriters Tony Grisoni, Alex Cox, and Tod Davies, stay true to the oblique and fantastical nature of Hunter S. Thompson's book, never giving us the satisfaction of feeling comfortable or like we really understand what the hell is going on. Gilliam and the production team even go so far as to use Ralph Steadman's original illustrations as inspiration for the look and feel of the film, adding to the undercurrent of paranoia and unease boiling beneath what- in the wrong hands- could have just been a buddy road trip stoner comedy. Johnny Depp and Benicio del Toro throw everything they have into their respective roles, leaving no trace of ego or reservation on the screen, and the revolving door of cameos, including Tobey Maguire, Cameron Diaz, Christina Ricci, Gary Busey, Ellen Barkin, Craig Bierko, Michael Jeter, Mark Harmon, Penn Jillette, Flea, Harry Dean Stanton, Laraine Newman, Christopher Meloni, and Hunter S. Thompson himself help make their scenes fun and memorable. The works of Hunter S. Thompson have also been adapted into the less well-received WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM and THE RUM DIARY, but FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS will undoubtedly be the standard by which all other Thompson adaptations are judged for years to come.

Thoughts? What else worked for you? What didn't? Strike back below!

If you have any movies you'd like to see put under the microscope, let us know below or send me an email at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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