Film: Crazy like a museum piece

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture


118 MINS




Too late, too late. Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was first published by Rolling Stone in 1971, when the counter-culture was still in full swing and communiques from the drug underworld (see Easy Rider) were embraced as a thrilling form of sedition. If an enterprising film-maker back then had seized the moment and tried to translate the book to the screen, the result might at least have picked up on the paranoid reverb of the times - the war in Vietnam, the student demonstrations, Nixon and the tremors of Watergate. In short, it might have been contemporary.

But times change - thankfully - and, 27 years on, Terry Gilliam's film has the forlorn look of a museum piece; a screeching battle hymn that wants to celebrate hysteria and instead, merely succumbs to it. Fear and Loathing is based not around a plot but a trip, in at least two senses of the word. An apple-red convertible bearing two men tears through the desert towards Las Vegas. Riding shotgun is sportswriter, Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), at the wheel his tubby, hirsute attorney, Dr Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro), and in the trunk a cornucopia of hallucinogenic drugs, some of which are just beginning to take hold.

Duke is ostensibly on assignment to cover a desert motorcycle race, but professional duties are soon blown to the winds by the pair's overriding urge to turn themselves inside out on pharmaceuticals. Gilliam has set himself quite a task here, because, bereft of a plot, he must instead find an equivalent movement, a momentum, within his characters' deranged psychology. The camera has watched them dropping acid - now what do you do? Well, pretty obvious stuff, as it turns out: Duke walks into a Las Vegas hotel lobby and notices the carpet begin to swirl kaleidoscopically; then the receptionist suddenly morphs into a reptile; then he joins Dr Gonzo in the lounge and watches as the clientele metamorphose into lizards. Funny? It feels less inventive and less witty than those Smirnoff adverts; Gilliam has long been a master of visual disorientation (think of Brazil) but he's working in a far more crowded market these days.

More seriously, the film never succeeds in dispelling suspicions of its pointlessness. While the TV carries doom-laden images of Vietnam and the soundtrack blasts out a rollicking jukebox medley of hits (from Dylan and the Stones to Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds), we are asked to believe that the phantasmagoric drug binge of two self-indulgent slobs is in some way defiant: a heroic escape from mundane reality. Only it isn't. It's just the phantasmagoric drug binge of two self-indulgent slobs. The film depends for its effect on our regarding Duke and Gonzo as modern desperadoes, frontier outlaws, yet a catalogue of their exploits in the hell of Las Vegas attests not so much to a revolt against conformity as a bolt-hole from boredom. They silly-walk around a funfair, trash hotel rooms, threaten each other with knives and guns, and terrorise a waitress in a diner. Some desperadoes.

This might have been endurable if Gilliam had managed to coax something extraordinary from either of the two leads. No chance. Johnny Depp handles the role of Thompson's twitchy alter ego Duke by shaving his head, donning jungle shorts and muttering out of the corner of his mouth in a gruff baritone, a cigarette-holder clamped in the other corner. He also provides the voice-over narration, which for a supposedly "visionary" director like Gilliam is to some extent an admission of defeat. Far worse, however, is Benicio Del Toro's impersonation of the unhinged attorney, slurring incomprehensibly from first frame to last and flaunting his gut with the pride of a farmer showing off his prize-winning pig. (Del Toro put on 40 pounds for the role, though it brings no commensurate gravitas to his acting).

"Had we deteriorated to the level of dumb beasts?" asks Duke, as if expecting a serious answer. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a film desperate to fly off the rails, out of its head, beyond the pale, yet it remains stuck fast on terra firma watching two not very intriguing characters getting wired and weird. However much they enjoyed it, the message to the audience rings loud and clear: the drugs don't work.

Happily, there is at least one film that can be recommended from this week's scrum. Insomnia is a moody Norwegian thriller starring Stellan Skarsgard (of Breaking The Waves) as Jonas Engstrom, an apparently unflappable police detective who arrives in the northern wilds of Norway to investigate a sex killing. Having laid a trap for his suspect, the case backfires horribly as Engstrom, stumbling through a mist, shoots the wrong man and thereafter vacillates between pursuing the investigation and covering up his mistake.

What at first seems a standard police procedural, instead becomes a complex study of a man trying to resolve professional detachment with a traumatic sense of guilt and paranoia. Compounding the detective's distress is his inability to sleep: this is the land of the midnight sun, and every effort to block out the daylight from his night-thoughts is doomed to failure. With suave irony, first-time director Erik Skjoldbjaerg inverts the central motif of noir by shedding a pitiless light on his protagonist's torment; there is literally no darkness Engstrom can hide within.

In its delicate balance between exposure and concealment, Hitchcock is the presiding spirit, yet Insomnia negotiates the cross-currents of suspicion and dread with a finesse all of its own. Vital to its effect is the performance of Skarsgard, suggesting through his spooked, drawn features, the nightmare of a man who knows how close he is to breakdown. Toiling to keep a grip, he elicits a pleasingly ambiguous sympathy, suffering hellfire for his terrible mistake yet absolutely ruthless in his determination to bury it.