“The possibility of physical and mental collapse is now very real. No sympathy for the Devil, keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride.” As we watch protagonist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) recover from an indeterminately long drug binge, it is difficult to determine whether this narration is in reference to his own experience, or the viewer’s; the journey to this point has been as arduous for us as it has been for Duke and his associate, Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro). We have been more than alongside them throughout the film; we have stumbled through “a whole galaxy of multicolored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers” and experienced their effects for ourselves. The strange sense of terror that “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” dispenses upon its viewers is due not solely to its twisting plot and unsettling message, but also to the disorienting visuals and haunting soundtrack.
As the film begins, our eyes are met with a montage of Vietnam war protest clips, our ears with a twisted version of “My Favourite Things” performed by The Lennon Sisters. Then, a quote from Dr. Samuel Johnson: “He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.” The next two hours set out to contrast the man and the beast, the old and the new, the wrong and the right and, by extension, to make the viewer themselves question where they sit on these spectrums.
Duke and Gonzo are a separate species from the Vegasgoers, the cops, the waitresses, the hitchhikers and the innocent girls with whom they cross paths. They are drug-addled fools; they are the remnants of the 1960s counterculture, now trying to escape a dead version of the American Dream trapped in the aftermath of a magical hope for universal love and peace that never came to fruition. In the few moments where they don’t pass completely under the radar of society, they are recognized as wild beasts, interesting and terrifying at once. They violate the ordinary, taking advantage of a slightly infatuated highway cop; assaulting a hotel maid in a paranoid frenzy; suggesting the naive, young artist they drugged be used for their own monetary gain as “straight economics.”
The most frightening part of this characterization, however, is the reflection of these same traits—violence, exploitation, a calculated animality—in the very society they abuse. In one scene, Duke and Gonzo, in their white Eldorado convertible, drive alongside a shiny, new car containing a well-dressed, clean-cut couple being driven by a chauffeur—the image of the classic American Dream. Gonzo’s puke covers the passenger’s side of the convertible. Gonzo spits the alcohol he’s been drinking onto the adjacent car and yells, “Hey, honkies.
You folks wanna buy some heroin? Goddamnit, I’m serious. All I’m trying to sell you is some pure fucking smack!” The husband, visibly uncomfortable, attempts to remain civil until he finally breaks: “Goddammit you bastards! Pull over! I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you! Pull over, come on!” The only difference between the two parties here is that Duke and Gonzo embrace their own barbarism while the couple tries to ignore this side of themselves and refuse to accept it until they are forced. This scene raises a question: is one point of view objectively better than the other?
The line between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is made purposely ambiguous, echoing the confused tone of the early ‘70s—a time when the American Dream has become obscured and hazy and people are unable to aspire to it. Duke’s journey through this era—“a classic affirmation of everything right and true in the national character […] a gross physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country” —is as difficult for us to follow as it is for him to undertake. Swerving, canted shots and colorful, pulsating lights have a hallucinatory effect. Sudden transitions between harsh, screaming noise and complete silence startle viewers out of a false sense of awareness. We are just as dazed as he is, and, once again, it becomes difficult to distinguish between his inner monologue and our own. Like him, we ask ourselves, “What [am] I doing here? What [is] the meaning of this trip? [Am] I just roaming around in a drug frenzy of some kind?”
Although it is still unclear at the end of the film what has been explicitly accomplished and if we have indeed discovered a new version of the American Dream, there is an overwhelming sense of resolution in the acquiescence we feel. We, along with Duke, surrender to whatever lies ahead as he drives his trashed Eldorado “onto the Hollywood Freeway, and straight on into frantic oblivion. Safety. Obscurity. Just another freak, in the freak kingdom.” And perhaps, in the end, it is that very obscurity which makes the movie so palpably unsettling and bewilderingly profound.