Review: Terry Gilliam’s ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ on Criterion 4K UHD Blu-ray

Gilliam’s film is a lysergic-tinged lament for the death of the American dream.

Fear and Loathing in Las VegasEulogizing the 1960s in a haze of marijuana smoke, psychotropic apparitions, ether vapors, and coke sweats, Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant, notorious 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas has aged startlingly well. Picked up by Gilliam when fellow cinematic madman Alex Cox dropped out, the project (penned by Gilliam, Cox, Tod Davies, and Tony Grisoni) was long thought to be the most preposterous screen adaptation ever mounted—an impossibly addled switchback ride through the death rattles of the 1960s, compacted and then stretched out like silly putty over a three-day fever dream in the heart of Sin City.

For Gilliam, the sheer outrageousness of the dystopian Freedomland that Thompson had found or hallucinated about out in the desert while covering the Mint 400 motorcycle race for Sports Illustrated presented a perfect outlet for his giddy, often disturbing brand of inventiveness, and, indeed, Fear and Loathing stands as the Monty Python alum’s last completely successful work. As Gilliam and Thompson saw it, the dreaded hangover after the hopeful, idealistic bliss-out of the ’60s was pitched somewhere between gallows humor, existential mania, and the unrelenting horror of not only what we had lost but what we had traded it in for.

Driving along the open desert road, en route to an assignment too mundane for them to really care about, is Thompson’s partially fictionalized surrogate, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo (a fearless and utterly spellbinding Benicio del Toro). But they’re more concerned with the American dream they had watched evaporate like a line of chopped cocaine up the nose of a wasted generation than the real Thompson and his attorney ever were.

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In reality, Thompson and Dr. Gonzo, né Oscar Zeta Acosta, were in the throes of their own fiendish paranoia, following Thompson’s investigation into the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department’s “accidental” killing of civil rights activist and Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar. The excursion out to Glitter Gulch was meant to be a way to clear their minds, to discuss the case and the article that Thompson had been writing for Rolling Stone. But opening on the book’s legendary first line (“We were somewhere around Barsthow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold”), Gilliam’s film informs us immediately that no clear minds will be found on this particular assignment.

Seeing as it features perhaps the best acid-trip sequence to ever be projected at 24 frames per second, it’s fitting that the film never quite plants its feet on the ground for the whole of its runtime. Depp’s physical approximation of our zonked-out hero, moving through variations of uppers, downers, and hallucinogens with his eyebrows on full-tilt and gestures becoming perpetually more frantic, is a wonder, but the best help the film gets, aptly enough, is from its real-life protagonist, whose culture-shocked prose is spooned out in Depp’s narration like multicolored globs of concentrated paranoia, desperation, and incomprehensible lunacy.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Criterion Collection

Oddly enough, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas proves to be formidably cinematic in its delirious sprawl: Alex McDowell’s exemplary production design suggests Federico Fellini adapting a confluence of post-counterculture films (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Scarecrow immediately spring to mind), while the puppetry and visual effects are pure Gilliam. A woozy, warped trip through a carnival-themed bar and casino invokes the depraved underside of the carnival and club sequence in F.W. Murnau’s 1927 silent classic Sunrise, exposed after decades of moral decay and mental wear and tear.

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As gruesome and gaudy as Gilliam’s vision of the Las Vegas Strip is, greater horrors are to be found in the hotels that Duke and Gonzo roll through. Gonzo’s failed attempts to court Christina Ricci’s nubile street artist are bad enough, but del Toro’s tour-de-force performance peaks as he flails about in a bathtub and calls for Duke to electrocute him at the triumphant summit of “White Rabbit,” as Grace Slick reminds you to “feed your head.” Bathed in the afterglow of televised wars, game shows, and Nixon’s droopy mug, the two men let the drugs loose on their irrevocably expanded psyches within the four hideously wallpapered sides of their suite, with only Gonzo’s bowie knife and carts full of leftover room service to aid them. By the time they come down from a frenzied adrenochrome trip, just in time to get Gonzo to the airport, their second hotel room had deteriorated into a sticky pool of booze, bile, juice, and dingy bath water.

Littered with game supporting players, including Tobey Maguire, Christopher Meloni, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, and Michael Jeter, Gilliam’s wild ride brilliantly visualizes the indecipherable ambiguity between a vicious lost weekend in a neon-tinged Babylon and the bizarre everyday atrocities of the 1970s. The troubled process of getting a cohesive script together yielded a loose, strong blueprint that admittedly did away with some of the more sickeningly unsure and desperate moments of Thompson’s travelogue, which are here distilled into a singular, uncompromising scene of terror where Gonzo berates and threatens Ellen Barkin’s tough-as-nails diner waitress. But Fear and Loathing’s balance between Thompson’s twitchy death knell and Gilliam’s perverse wonderland seems completely apropos, maybe even accurate, and the cumulative dose is immensely effective.

Image/Sound

Criterion’s new 4K UHD presentation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas looks phenomenal. Cinematographer Nicola Peccorini’s garish neon-fueled palette is supercharged in 2160p, especially those predominant washes of orange, green, and pink. Grain is just right, and blacks are deep and rich. Fine details of the period costumes and décor practically leap off the screen. Audio comes in Master Audio stereo and 5.1 surround tracks. The stereo mix keeps the dialogue front and center, which, given Johnny Depp’s druggy mumble, is a good thing. The surround mix opens up the soundscapes and gives added weight to the period needle drops.

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Extras

Criterion carries over the same impressive slate of extras from their 2011 Blu-ray, most notably the three commentary tracks. Director Terry Gilliam provides a detailed and often hilarious account of the film’s making, conveying his thoughts on Thompson’s novel, his visual strategies, and his feelings about the film’s lukewarm initial reception. The second track stitches together contributions from Depp, Benicio Del Toro and producer Laila Nabulsi, with the actors discussing how they got into their roles, their approach to the material, and their encounters with Hunter S. Thompson, while Nabulsi talks about the 15-year process of getting the film made, keeping faithful to the novel, and her personal relationship with Thompson. Interrupted at times by howls, groans, and banshee screeches, the third track conveys Thompson’s thoughts on the film, the cast and crew, and what his book had to say about the heritage of the 1960s.

The rest of the extras divide their focus between the film and the source material. It’s nice to have a lot of these on hand, like the deleted scenes with optional commentary, but they’re not exactly what you’d call essential. That can’t be said, though, for a 1978 BBC documentary for the show Omnibus, titled Fear and Loathing on the Road to Hollywood, that follows Thompson and British artist Ralph Steadman on a trip from Colorado through Las Vegas and on to Hollywood for a meeting with the screenwriter of the Bill Murray-fronted biopic Where the Buffalo Roam. Also noteworthy are several supplements devoted to Mexican lawyer and Chicano rights advocate Oscar Zeta Acosta, a.k.a. Dr. Gonzo. Finally, the leaflet contains an essay from critic J. Hoberman about the film’s performances and themes.

Overall

Unabashedly grotesque and hysterically funny, Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a lysergic-tinged lament for the death of the American dream.

Score: 
 Cast: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro, Ellen Barkin, Craig Bierko, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Flea, Mark Harmon, Katherine Helmond, Michael Jeter, Lyle Lovett, Tobey Maguire, Chris Meloni, Christina Ricci, Harry Dean Stanton, Tim Thomerson  Director: Terry Gilliam  Screenwriter: Terry Gilliam, Alex Cox, Tod Davies, Tony Grisoni  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 118 min  Rating: R  Year: 1998  Release Date: June 4, 2024  Buy: Video

Chris Cabin

Chris Cabin co-hosts the popular We Hate Movies podcast.

Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins's writing has appeared in Film Journal International and Video Watchdog. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

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