A Surreal Journey to a Legendary City
Terry Gilliam directs this 1998 movie – a figure with legendary status, famous for his unconventional film making. His tendency to choose strange tales to tell has helped him build a well-deserved reputation. His name alone sets the expectation of an unusual and peculiarly presented story. Gilliam is so recognisable that you don’t need to read the credits to know he made the movie. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a great title in his portfolio of controversial yet praised artistic achievements. The film itself was both loved and hated by critics and audience, which was well intended according to Gilliam. It was a financial failure with box office income of $10.6 million, compared to the budget of 18.5 million. Nevertheless, it has made its mark as a cult movie.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – The Storyline
The script is an adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream”. The novel is a first-person narrative that presents a blurry mixture of fiction and actual events the author experienced in the early 1970s. The movie keeps the same spirit and further contributes to it via stunningly confusing visual approach. The plot involves two extremely exotic characters – journalist Raoul Duke and his lawyer known simply as Dr Gonzo. The film shows their epically chaotic journey from LA to Las Vegas during which Duke is supposed to cover the legendary Mint 400 desert race. However, things turn sideways before the two even reach Vegas, as they begin to make use of their impressive inventory of various psychoactive substances. Surviving in an unfamiliar city while being in a severely doped state soon takes precedence over Duke’s journalistic assignment. The massive amounts and variety of drugs bring substantial doubt that things are going to end well. The whole movie is an endless bad trip during which the only variable is the set of intoxication symptoms. The characters never wait for a substance to lose its grip before trying another one.
About the Characters in the Movie
As expected, the two main personas in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas have their prototypes in real life. Raoul Duke is obviously Hunter Thompson. In the movie he is impersonated by Johnny Depp who, while preparing for the role, went as far as living in Thompson’s house, studying the author’s habits, and going through the book draft and notes. Dr Gonzo’s real-life counterpart is Oscar Zeta Acosta – an attorney, political activist, novelist, and a close friend of Hunter Thompson. In the movie, Dr Gonzo is played by Benicio del Toro, who went through serious physical transformation (over 40 pounds weight gain) while doing thorough research on Acosta’s biography.
Places and Events in the Film
A movie like this cannot be filmed entirely in a studio. The crew inevitably had to go to Las Vegas, and you can recognise famous landmarks from the strip in the footage. Here are some distinct places and events shown in the film.
The Mint Hotel
This is the first hotel Duke and Dr Gonzo check in during their stay in Vegas. The owner of the property sponsored the biggest off-road race in the US, the Mint 400. Duke had to register there, pick his credentials and meet an assigned photographer. However, the effect of an exotic cocktail of psychoactive substances makes him unable to check-in on his own and Dr Gonzo comes to save the day.
The Mint 400 Race
A legendary endurance race in the Nevada desert that was organised annually between 1968 and 1989. After twenty years of fame and glory, the event was discontinued. The sponsor, who also owned the Mint Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas organised the first editions to promote his hotel and gambling business. Soon enough the race grew in significance and began to attract more teams and spectators every next year. After a change in ownership of the Mint Hotel, the event was discontinued for nearly 20 years, to be revived in 2008. It has been taking place annually since then. In the film, Raoul Duke gets assigned to cover the race by an unnamed press agency, and this is supposed to be the primary reason for his trip to Vegas.
The Vegas strip
The movie has the name of Las Vegas in its title. This dictates that a cruise along the strip is mandatory. As Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo are riding their convertible the camera focuses on famous locations. You can distinguish the shiny signs of the Stardust, Hacienda and Riviera casinos. The first two became famous for being secretly controlled by the mafia via front men. This story was adapted for screen and told in the film Casino we reviewed previously. The Riviera is where a big part of the footage for Casino was taken.
This is a fictional place on the Vegas strip designed to resemble the existing Circus Circus, but in a grotesque way. The real construction was made at Warner Bros Studios. In the movie, Dr Gonzo has a deep crisis there. Duke’s notable comment about the place says: “Bazooko’s Circus is what the world would be doing every Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This was the Sixth Reich”.
Depiction of Gambling
There are very few moments of gambling display in the movie. Dr Gonzo never plays, and Raoul Duke bets once on a fortune wheel and loses. That’s pretty much all as far as the main characters are concerned. In this film gambling, just like anything else in Las Vegas, is a vague element of a hazy background. The primary focus is on the two friends suffering from complete lack of orientation, coherence, purpose and integrity due to the continuous and persistent substance abuse. However, two short but memorable moments stand out. In one, the press tent at the Mint 400 location is shown from the inside. There are playing tables where the journalists are gambling while awaiting the event to begin. When the race starts, all are discontent that they must quit playing and go to work. The other notable moment is Duke’s bet on the wheel of fortune. He wagers a small amount, loses it and gets angry. Surprisingly, after a short burst of curses Duke defies his frustration and says:
“Calm down. Learn to enjoy losing.”
This is a piece of surprisingly adequate advice given the poor state of mind the character is in. As said, the movie is not about glorious gambling moments. Also, we doubt one could feel the rush of gambling while getting far more serious kicks from various drugs.
Things You Should Never Do in Vegas (or anywhere else)
One way to look at the film is as a list of absurd, ridiculous and reckless things you should avoid doing at any cost. Las Vegas doesn’t have a magic aura that cancels the consequences of your wrongdoing, and neither does any other place on the planet.
Here are our top picks of the crazy things done by Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo:
- Load your car trunk with psychoactive substances and hit the road while under the influence of hallucinogens.
- Show up at a hotel front desk so stoned you cannot state your name clearly.
- Trash your hotel suite, then leave without paying your room service bill, then go to another hotel and trash your room there too.
- Go to a D.A. conference on narcotics while being doped beyond recognition.
- Spend a considerable amount of effort to persuade a front desk clerk to let you in at a live show only to get kicked out moments later.
- Ditch a rental car to avoid recognition, then rent another one, damage its convertible top, and cruise the city like this.
- Attempt to buy an orangutan.
- Offer LSD to a young girl without being completely aware of her exact age, and take her to your hotel room.
- “Don’t gamble with marijuana” – this is our absolute favourite. It’s a slogan on a billboard at the border of Nevada that informs about harsh penalties for possession and sale. We don’t know how severe penalties really were in the 1970s, nor if such billboards really existed. However, it’s clearly depicted in the movie. Suffice to say, currently, the purchase, possession, and consumption of recreational marijuana is legal in the state, with reasonable limitations applied.
As mentioned, many of the events in the book, and subsequently the movie, are based on Hunter Thompson’s real-life experiences. Although the book doesn’t claim objectivity, Hunter Thompson’s biography and his known tendencies make us suspect that a lot of this might have actually happened.
What’s the Story Really About?
After the peak of the hippie movement between 1967 and 1969, things began to slow down steadily and certainly. In the early 1970s, the wave had already lost momentum, and the Summer of Love had already transformed into nostalgic memory. The culture that left a deep mark in history was decaying, beaten and dissolved by time. At some point in the movie Raoul Duke, in a moment of surprising and unexpected clarity, expresses his nostalgia for the old times. He says:
“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning.”
So, it is about winning after all, but winning what? The war of new norms and values against the old ones? The victory of the dreamed world of peace and love that was supposed to replace the old world of greed and ambition? No answer is given to these questions. We are simply left with the notion that something great people had was lost and almost forgotten. Sadly, Duke realises that Las Vegas is not San Francisco from 1967. Our two heroes are unique relics of another place and time, “too weird to live and too rare to die”. This is a phrase Duke uses to describe Dr Gonzo, but it applies to both of them. The dream they pursued is evidently far from the broad idea of the American dream. And Las Vegas, being the heart of the American dream as the book title suggest, is definitely not a good place for them.