Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: critique of The American Dream
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a film from 1998 in which follows a psychedelic road trip by two men to Las Vegas. It is an adaptation of the book with the same name from 1971 that was written by Hunter S. Thompson. The protagonists are journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his lawyer Dr Gonzo (Benicio del Toro). The film was directed by Terry Gilliam.
The DVD cover states `Love it, hate it'. These are exactly the reactions this film provokes. Some find it a repugnant film; others consider it to be one of the best films they have ever seen. Finding a middle ground seems impossible. Why this sharp distinction exists will be explained in this article.
The beginning of the film
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas begins with images of a protest against the Vietnam War. Then Duke and Gonzo appear on screen. They drive through the desert in a red convertible. The first thing Duke says is: "We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold." Next, you see what he hallucinates: a large swarm of bats descending on him. Duke beats the visuals away with a plastic swatter. The viewer is directly thrown into the madness.
Then they pick up a hitchhiker. Like many things in the film, it is totally unclear how he wound up in the desert. The hitchhiker takes place in the back seat. Duke sits beside the young man and tells him what just had happened. The viewer is a witness to his flashback. Apparently, they are travelling to Las Vegas to report the Mint 400 motor race. Duke is a journalist and Gonzo his lawyer. The accompaniment of a lawyer in this situation does not seem logical at all, but what is, under these circumstances?
The advance Duke received for writing the article was used to amass a very large collection of narcotics. The drugs sit in a suitcase back in the trunk. The contents are described in great detail by Duke.
Meanwhile, they are driving through the desert, heavily tripping with an unsuspecting hitchhiker on the back seat. He is however quickly informed of what is going on because Duke tells the boy everything that comes into his mind. In the meantime, he has thrown an arm around the boy. The sight of the hitchhiker is especially hilarious, because he grows more anxious with the minute, suffering in silence.
Then Gonzo gets an attack behind the wheel. He starts to shake violently, beating with his legs and arms while yelling for his medicine. With screeching tires the car comes to a stop. Duke jumps on the co-rider's chair and gives Gonzo something to sniff. Helping himself to something afterwards. For the hitchhiker, this is the chance for escape. He jumps out of the convertible and makes a run for the desert. At first, both men are astonished, but then they rapidly drive away fearing the hitchhiker will send the police after them.
The madness of the first scene continues throughout the rest of the film. Every day they spent in Las Vegas the duo uses an exceptional amount of narcotics. Sometimes one of them goes too far while the other one can just about prevent it from going wrong. Then they reverse roles. This reversal takes place several times. The two men leave a path of destruction and break almost every rule imaginable. Gonzo even drugs a minor with which he may have had sexual intercourse.
Are you curious how this all ends? Then you should watch the film. It is available on channels like Netflix.
The drugs consumed in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
A number of known and lesser known drugs make an appearance in the film. The usual suspects are cocaine, mescaline, LSD, cannabis and heroin. Additionally Duke and Gonzo carry a complete collection of pharmaceutical uppers and downers.
Also, two more obscure substances are named. The first one is ether. Just like GHB and ketamine ether used to be administered as an anaesthetic. As a recreational drug, it is not so well known. This probably is due to its effect which is similar to alcohol. Alcohol can be obtained easily and as a result, the demand for ether is quite low. Also, one does not drink ether. You inhale it by holding your nose on a piece of cloth drenched in ether. Of course, this is not as sociable as a glass wine, especially since you reek of ether afterwards.
Duke is also offered adrenochrome by Gonzo. It is a substance that is produced by the body and which in high concentrations possibly causes schizophrenia. Adrenochrome is produced by the human body when adrenalin oxidises. Scientists speculate that large doses of vitamin C can sometimes heal schizophrenia. As it happens, Vitamin C is an antioxidant and should be able to reduce the oxidation of adrenalin. However, no in-depth study has been done on the subject. According to Aldous Huxley, the effects of adrenochrome are comparable to mescaline. In an interview director, Gilliam confessed that he did not know that adrenochrome was a real substance. He thought that it was a fictitious drug.
Deeper layers of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Many people think that Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas only consists of pure madness, but Thompson had, in fact, a strong message in mind. With his book, he expressed, amongst other things, his disappointment regarding the end of the flower power era. At the beginning of the 1970s it looked like things were really going to change, but according to Thompson, the flower power movement, in the long run, became too mainstream. More and more people who did not think for themselves joined. Consequently, the ideals of a free life were replaced by a longing for safety.
According to Thompson Las Vegas formed the nerve centre of The American Dream. There everything was fake. For this reason, his book was situated in the city. He poked fun at bourgeois life. Thompson in a humorous way wanted to make clear how materialism deteriorated society. Not everyone, however, gets this message or appreciates it.
Love it, hate it
People who are not into drug or live an orderly life will probably not recognise themselves in the scenes from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Those of us who like some excess from time to time will better understand what Thompson was trying to say. With excess, one should think of something more than a wild night out and returning home at six in the morning. We are talking about bouts of three days straight under the influence of a potent cocktail of heavy psychedelics and strong narcotics. Obviously, this is not without its risks, but some people do take them. On the one hand to escape the daily routine, on the other to rebel.
The use of narcotics in places where one really should not trip becomes for some a statement. Especially if one comes eye to eye with authorities, like the police, which can be a provocation. At some point, Duke enters a hotel which hosts a conference of policemen. He arrives and suddenly comes face to face with hundreds of policemen while still holding his briefcase. The same briefcase filled with an enormous collection of illegal drugs. For some, this is the ultimate statement.
A group of people share this rebellious feeling with Thompson. They know how to appreciate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. These are not necessarily big users like Duke and Gonzo, but you probably must be a bit cynical about society if you understand the underlying message of the film.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas at the time received very few reviews. Those who liked the film probably did not want to be too open about it. They could be considered as possible proponents of drugs. Especially in America, it was almost ignored for this reason. The War on Drugs, after all, is far more intense there. Top critics of Time and Newsweek did not review the film at all. This, in a sense, made the film even more interesting.
Peak madness is reached in the film when Duke and Gonzo arrive at an anti-narcotics conference. Deep under the influence, they take a seat among the rest of the public, not forgetting to take a sniff. Again, this is a typical example of contrarious behaviour. While both men consume a speaker gives a talk on the evils of cannabis. The man on the podium at the same time smokes a cigarette. With this image Gilliam catches the contradictions of the American drug policy: cannabis is illegal, but tobacco can be sold abundantly. Whereas tobacco obviously kills more people than cannabis.
When Duke arrives in Las Vegas he ends up in a bad trip in which all people are turned into monsters. Some disliked this scene because it is clearly fake. And yet, the film has plenty of moments that are recognizable for the experienced tripper.
Recognition especially takes the shape of other visuals, like the carpet in which colours melt into each other or faces that suddenly transform. The wooden manner in which Duke moves is very recognizable. His posture, his way of looking and talking, are really imaginative. Particularly Johnny Depp is persuading as a person under the influence of LSD. His feelings of paranoia almost persist during the film, which is logical, as they constantly break the law. Watching Johnny Depp act it is almost unthinkable that he did not trip himself before making the film. Otherwise he has carefully studied people who were tripping.
The film and the book
During the film, you can hear a constant voice-over by Johnny Depp. He literally cites passages from the book. This is rather special because literal citations from a book are seldom used this extensively. According to Gilliam Thompson's texts were too good to be replaced. Thanks to this decision the film remains very true to the original story of the book.
Duke is Thompson
In reality Thompson is the protagonist, Duke. Duke, therefore, is a pseudonym. This becomes clear in the book when Gonzo sends a telegram to Duke using the name Thompson. In the film, this is far less clear. However when they arrive at the first hotel Gonzo asks if Duke is ready to check in under a false name. He then uses the pseudonym Raoul Duke. In this way, it is explained that this is not his real name.
Watching Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
If you are into tripping you don’t have to automatically like this film. What Duke and Gonzo do goes much farther than taking a single trip. You mainly need a hefty dose of cynicism and a critical view on society to appreciate the work of Gilliam. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas may have been received badly; it is without a doubt a cult film. It is absolutely a must for everyone who questions the way things work in our society and are not afraid to rebel from time to time.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Starring: Johnny Depp, Benicio del Toro,
Runtime: 119 minutes