They said it couldn't be done, but here it is. Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 fact-ion exposé on a wild weekend in Las Vegas has finally been translated to the silver screen, by none other than that master of cinematic whimsy, Terry Gilliam.
Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) a.k.a. Thompson and his sidekick Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) a.k.a. Oscar Acosta, Chicano lawyer, make a high-speed run to Vegas to cover the Mint 500, a motorcycle race. But once ensconced in a lurid hotel suite, they discover that the real action awaits in their savage minds. Nixon's on the telly, Jefferson Airplane on the tape player and, downstairs, Debbie Reynolds is driving the swine from Des Moines wild.
Depp and del Toro have fabulous chemistry, as it were, as they grow more paranoid and surly with each cap of acid and line of coke. By the middle of the film, they speak in whispers and mutters, free-associating their way through various contretemps with the straights. Duke and Gonzo have fallen through the looking glass and they don't like what they see.
Perhaps because Gilliam has imprisoned them in a seething kitsch nightmare that mocks the "new rich" glamour of Casino. The fat and stupid are everywhere, decked out in their garish togs, wallowing around in seas of blood filled with lizards. Everyone looks beaten and on the verge of breakdown. Walls breathe and floors pulsate. Sounds come from all directions, echoing and reverberating into a nerve-shredding cacophony. A new psychic swamp awaits in every room. If you've never been on an acid trip before, now's your chance. For Thompson, Vegas was not the stuff of dreams. America was fucked forever.
In various interviews, Gilliam contends that Thompson was some kind of domestic war correspondent, going behind the enemy lines of the straights in pursuit of the American dream. Maybe. But in the intervening three decades, it's become very clear who were the winners and who were the losers. Gonzo journalism is dead. Hippies became yuppies. The newspaper industry lost whatever nerve it had, and most magazines are not much more than flak machines for the various entertainment industries. Publicity, not indignation, is the name of the game.
And whither Hunter S. Thompson? Holed up in Aspen, mind fried, liver cooked. His post-traumatic stress disorder has given him terminal writer's block. Fear and Loathing was his moment of genius, the last dispatch as it were, and then a quick slide into self-parody. In short, he let his side down. How could gonzo survive if its leader sent himself over the side, riding the death star of the '60s out into an electric blue desert sky?
A fitting elegy, then, not just for a man or a generation, but for a culture that has mastered the art of breeding sheep.
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