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'Fear': Worth the Trip

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 22, 1998

  Movie Critic

    Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
    Johnny Depp stars in "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." (Universal)
The aftertaste of director Terry Gilliam's ferociously visual, visceral "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" lingers well past the closing credits, like a bad hangover. While not a great sensation-you may in fact feel like throwing up-it is a sign of great movie making, particularly when the movie is essentially about the limits to the variety and amount of pharmaceuticals that two individuals can consume without killing themselves.

Or is it?

Terry Gilliam
Johnny Depp;
Benicio Del Toro;
Ray Cooper;
Walt D. Ludwig;
Ellen Barkin;
Gary Busey;
Cameron Diaz
Christina Ricci
Running Time:
2 hours, 8 minutes
Violence, profanity and drug use
Based on Hunter S. Thompson's twisted-no, wrenched-roman a clef about his narcotic-filled journey to cover an off-road motorcycle race and a district attorneys' conference in the Nevada desert, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" delves much deeper than the literal level of personal dysfunction exhibited by him and his traveling companion, attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. It's also a wide-angle snapshot of the great American dystopia-set against a background of Vietnam and social change-that occurred in what Thompson called "The Foul Year of Our Lord, 1971."

Thompson is here represented by the character of Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), while Acosta is called Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro). The story catches up to their big, swerving convertible-known as the Red Shark-midway between L.A. and Vegas, which, according to Duke's voice-over narration, is just about "when the drugs kicked in." (That would be some or all of the following: beer, pot, coke, ether, acid, mescaline, an assortment of pills, and something called "adrenochrome.") From that point on, in fact, the drugs never kick out.

The camera becomes, as it were, a third participant in Duke and Gonzo's debauchery, reeling, vibrating and distorting as the chemical vortex swallows them-and us-deeper and deeper into its altered state. Every few minutes, it seems, something is jumping off the lurid screen, whether it is the ever-present cigarette holder jutting from Duke's leering face or the limp head of a deer carcass on the hood of a jeep. There is no sober, detached point of view from which one can safely observe the proceedings. This has the paradoxical effect of making the film, like a train wreck, both difficult to look at while at the same time compulsively watchable.

Del Toro is fantastically funny (and 40 pounds heavier than usual) as the bloated, substance-abusing lawyer. Like Laurel and Hardy on acid, Gonzo and Duke's friendship consists mainly of the two threatening each other with guns, hunting knives and shower curtain rods.

But the strongest magnet in this psychedelic morass is Johnny Depp who, as the story's antic, disgusting and seductive spirit guide, is impossible to look away from. With the crown of his head shaved above the trademark amber shades, his bow-legged strut and that clipped, guttural monotone, Depp appears to be channeling the very soul of Hunter Thompson. Through director of photography Nicola Pecorini's whacked-out camera work, it's as if we are simultaneously watching the narrative from within and without Duke's ever-more dust-, blood- and mucous-flecked skull.

What elevates the tale from being a mere drug chronicle is the same thing that lifted the book into the realm of literature. It's the sense that Gilliam, like Thompson, is always totally in command of his medium, while abandoning himself utterly to unpredictable forces beyond his control.

Gilliam's touch is light and deft as he quietly suggests the larger social context against which Duke and Gonzo are set spinning like dervishes. Without being heavy-handed, Gilliam lets the audience glimpse just enough of the world outside the hallucinatory Wonderland of Las Vegas to remind us exactly how hysterical and horrific our long, strange trip to the cusp of the 21st century has been.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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