With Sicario Day of the Soldado opening this past weekend starring Benicio Del Toro, I was called to think of my favorite Benicio Del Toro performance. And while I enjoyed his work in Traffic, his Academy Award nominated performance, for me, his performance as Dr. Gonzo is an all time classic in Del Toro’s canon. Del Toro is the wild, raging, drug fueled id of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a film itself that appears like a raging fire.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas stars Johnny Depp as Doctor of Journalism Raoul Duke, an alias of one Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson is famed for his gonzo journalism, a drug fueled style that earned him a loyal readership in Rolling Stone Magazine over three decades from the 60’s to the 80’s. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is taken from Thompson’s book of the same name about a drug fueled trip to Las Vegas that Thompson, as Duke, took to supposedly cover a motorcycle race for his magazine.
Of course, Duke has little interest in motorcycle racing. No, he’s in this for the road trip with his best friend and attorney, known here as Dr. Gonzo (Del Toro). Whether Dr. Gonzo was a real person or a Thompson creation cobbled together from several friends and fellow drug users is part of Thompson’s legend. The road trip debauchery is the focus of the movie and it starts right away with a red cadillac procured with Rolling Stone funds and a suitcase bursting with every kind of mind altering drug imaginable.
Eventually, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shifts gears from motorcycles to district attorneys as Gonzo has procured them a suite to attend the national district attorneys convention. Unfortunately, that is not all that Gonzo has procured as he is now in the company of a potentially underage girl, Lucy (Christina Ricci). Having just met, Gonzo has given the young girl her first taste of acid and the trip is going bad.
There isn’t much of a story in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s a film of feel rather than substance. Director Terry Gilliam wants you to feel like your with Hunter S. Thompson on one of his famed drug trips and see the world through Duke’s eyes. This means fisheye lens and a queasy making visuals to illustrate the mind on various different types of hallucinogens from ether to acid to marijuana.
The film is remarkable at making you feel like you’re tripping right along with the characters, even if, like me, you’ve never used an illegal drug. I recall seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on the big screen and walking out into a world that didn’t look real after words. It took a little while before my eyes could adjust to the real world again and I recall liking the feeling. The film’s trippy visual is less effective on the small screen but no less artful.
Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro have a terrifically weird chemistry. I am not going to speculate as to the on-set drug use behind the scenes of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but it’s hard not to imagine that both actors don’t have some personal experiences driving their performances. Del Toro especially seems familiar with the wild emotions of mind-altering drugs with his wild eyes and bizarrely perfect sloppy speech pattern. It has the practiced, polished feel of someone trying not to let on that they are on drugs.
For his part, Depp radiates endless charisma. Even playing a bald man in bizarre 70’s costume, he still comes off as handsome and engaging. It’s a star performance and yet one pitched perfectly for this strange and unique role. Depp and Hunter S. Thompson became friends in real life during the making of the movie. So close were the two that after Thompson took his own life, Depp was part of a celebration that shot the author’s ashes out of a cannon.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a true cult classic. A strange, trippy, bizarre comic creation with wit and star power. Great performances combine with inventive visuals to create arguably THE best drug trip movie of all time. It’s a film that remains a go to for revival theaters across the country that roll the film out on a yearly basis, with the blessing and backing of its parent studio, Universal Pictures which has benefited greatly from the continuing popularity of the movie which barely eked out a profit on its theatrical release.