Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
April 26th, 2011

What is the American Dream? What is this entity that has so many people striving for? This is the question that both the brilliant piece of writing known as Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, written by the founder of Gonzo Journalism himself, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, as well as the film that the book inspired, asks.

Directed by Terry Gilliam and released in 1998, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS has since found itself not only a cult following throughout the greater film world, but also a new life intellectually, as the states continue to delve deeper and deeper into economic failures and stagnant political movement.

It also may very well be one of the best releases to hit the shelves thanks to The Criterion Collection, now in all of its high-definition glory.

FEAR AND LOATHING sees Johnny Depp taking on the role of journalist Raoul Duke, the narrative’s proxy for Thompson himself, and Benicio del Toro in the slot of the enigmatic lawyer-turned-drug fiend Dr. Gonzo (based on the man Oscar Acosta), as the two make their way from LA to Las Vegas on the hunt for the American Dream.  The cover various stories, ranging from a bike race to a convention, all while diving deep into a hole filled with lizards, copious amounts of drugs and the occasional bit of prose. However, set following the events of the ‘60s and those that led to the conceptual death of that era, particularly something like Altamont, the film is steeped in a sense of melancholy, making this an experience unlike any seen prior, or since.

While he’s seen his fair share of award nominations and box office receipts, the true star of this film, and in a performance that for all intents and purposes may be the last truly interesting performance in his canon is one Johnny Depp. Born to act as, and recite the words of, one Hunter S. Thompson, Depp is absolutely breathtaking in this role. With the charisma seen in later performances like his turn as Jack Sparrow, and also the technical skill seen in something like ED WOOD, Depp gives a performance that has a style and level of skill that he simply hasn’t reached since.

Playing off him perfectly is the much darker Dr. Gonzo, and the actor behind him Benicio del Toro. A little lost in the hyperactive nature of his counterpart, del Toro gives a really strong performance here. There is a lot to this character, and as does Depp, del Toro fits this character and the world that Gilliam creates like a newly purchased black glove. He is, in many ways, the physical embodiment of this era, and everything that it stands for, all of which is perfectly manifested in this dark, yet really funny, performance. Toss in a weird mix of supporting performances from the likes of Ellen Barkin, Gary Busey, Cameron Diaz, Tobey Maguire, and Christina Ricci, and FEAR AND LOATHING becomes a weirdly visceral film in both its visual nature, and also the style in which its performers take on these roles, each seeming to be ripped right out of a live action Looney Tunes cartoon.

That said, all would be for naught if it weren’t for the aforementioned style of the film’s visual mastermind, Terry Gilliam.

Previously sought after by directors like Ralph Bakshi, and directly prior to Gilliam fellow Criterion-approved filmmaker Alex Cox (who still has a writing credit on the film), FEAR AND LOATHING was a film long in the works. However, after Cox left the project (some of which is discussed throughout this release’s supplemental material as well as the wonderful Alex Gibney film GONZO), it thankfully fell into the hands of Gilliam, who crafted what may be the most visually singular film of the late ‘90s.

Featuring Gilliam’s patented visual quirks, ranging from the way that each character is dressed and framed to the now-infamous lizard sequence, the film is chock full of shocking and awe-inspiring moments that seem to be the bastard son of Gilliam’s camera and artist-turned-Thompson-right-hand-man Ralph Steadman. Featuring breathtaking hyper-stylized cinematography from Nicola Pecorini, the film’s true star is the frame. Frame by frame, a gorgeous feature, the film features career-defining direction from Gilliam, and top-tier below the line production from names like Production Designer Alex McDowell and Art Director Chris Gorak.

However, it’s also thematically intriguing. Steeped in a boiling hot pot of melancholy and disillusionment, the film may be kinetic shot after kinetic shot, but whether it be the now iconic “beautiful wave” speech or the importance and nearly necessary use of drugs, the lack of love for the physical world that these characters live in is a stark concept. Toss in the added comments on the American Dream and the accessibility, or lack thereof, of that ideal, and you have a film that is both eye candy, and also something far deeper.

And talk about deep. Look that word up in the dictionary and the cover of this Criterion release will be right by the definition.

While it may be a simple upgrade from DVD to Blu-ray, that move in quality is mindblowing. Each frame of this film pops with this neon, almost Technicolor-like feel to it, and in HD, it looks like a whole new film. A wonderfully mixed soundtrack, the music really stands out here, featuring the legendary soundtrack from Rhino Records, in what sounds like a brand new audio track.  Just a truly top notch transfer from the company who does them best.

And then there are the supplements. Featuring three commentaries, there is almost too much to really talk about in any interesting manner. The film does feature three commentaries, including one with Gilliam, the actors and producers, and also writer Hunter S. Thompson, the latter of which being the most intriguing. Thompson was always an entertaining many to listen to, and it’s absolutely eye opening to hear him talk so candidly about his thoughts on the film, and also just his role in the film and in life in general. Depp, del Toro, and producer Laila Nabulsi also have a commentary, which is really informative, as is Gilliam’s. Both are far more informative with regards to the process behind making the film than Thompson’s, but Thompson’s is both entertaining and also much more important to adding context to the film.

Context. That word is very important here. Split up into two categories, “The Film” and “The Source,” this film’s supplements are numerous. With regards to the former, we are privy to a series of deleted scenes (with Gilliam commentary), storyboards, a look at the controversy behind the film’s writing credits (including a short film from Gilliam, commenting on the controversy), and the release’s most  interesting feature, the reading of the correspondence between Depp and Thompson, read by Depp. It’s absolutely eye-opening, most importantly with regards to the relationship between the two men.

The release also features a profile on Oscar Acosta, artwork from Steadman, a reading featuring Jim Jarmusch, and a few documentaries, most worthwhile being the BBC Omnibus documentary shot in 1978. It’s a really intriguing piece of supplemental material that adds a lot of depth to a man and a film that may not be as big of a part of the cultural zeitgeist as it rightfully should be. It’s a candid documentary, and it should be the first thing you click to after viewing this masterful film.  Really, the greatest aspect of this release is the fantastic context that it gives to one of the most influential pieces of journalistic writing of the last half century. A masterpiece of a release for a masterpiece of a time capsule.

Overall, while this film may not float everyone’s boat, this Criterion Blu-ray release is an upgrade of the highest order. Featuring beautiful audio and visual quality, the film has never looked better. It also may not be any more poignant that it is right now. Intellectually as stimulating as it is visually, FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS is like the finest of wines. The most absurd and dark wine, that is.

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