When did you first discover Hunter S Thompson, and under what circumstances? The answers to that question will be manifold, curious, terrifying, in the best sense of the word.
My first encounter was The Rum Diary, and it didn’t enamor me. A few years later I picked up the second volume of his collected correspondence. Its one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Fear and Loathing doesn’t come close. His most celebrated work hints at the reality of the man’s imagination, but the letters reveal it, containing some of the most outrageous prose I’ve ever read.
Writing prose about the things Thompson claimed to be doing, and doing them, are different things. In a sense, we’re better off not knowing the truth. Thompson failed as a novelist because he had one of those imaginations that couldn’t be contained within the bounds of fiction. He himself could and probably did go far further than any character he could dream up; and in the life he lead he met sufficient people who could join him in his personal gormengast to mean there really was no point in him trying to hang their clothes on characters who didn’t exist.
As Gibney’s film suggests, Thompson ended up trying to inhabit the neo-fictional character he’d turned himself into. Only he wasn’t – fictional – and it would appear the results were almost as disastrous as they would have been had he stuck to his dreams of emulating Fitzgerald & co and becoming a novelist. I don’t think there could be any footage sadder than that included in the documentary, showing an addled Thompson, childlike in his inanity, singing along to Candle In the Wind, over and over. This should not be how great writers are immortalized – the action of his quietly spoken son, sadly underused in the film, shooting three shots into the air the moment he realized his father was dead, is far more appropriate.
Gibney’s film suffers from not really seeming to know which story it wants to tell about the good doctor. It goes down various alleyways, tells bits of stories, runs out of time, moves on, and dawdles towards an overextended close. It is the curse of the biographer never to tell the story that the subject’s fans wish to hear, but it did seem strange the film never even mentioned Thompson’s trip to Vietnam, and dealt in such a cursory manner with Oscar Acosta, Thompson’s sidekick on the road to Las Vegas immortality. The complexities of a home loving, gun toting, drug taking pillar of the anti-establishment, were grappled with, but the movie never seemed to have any kind of a grasp on the disparate material it was attempting to weave into a narrative.
Maybe it’s hard to make a film about a writer. As a critic I’d urge you not to bother to go and see this film, which is frankly a dirge of a hagiography of someone who didn’t deserve one and wouldn’t have wanted one. Take your ten quid or ten dollars or whatever loose change you’ve got, walk to your nearest bookstore, and pick up a copy of his letters. Stand and read a few in the bookstore. If you don’t find yourself laughing or gripped within five minutes, put the book down, and use your money to watch the film. If you have, buy it, read every word, then buy as much as you can take, and then when you’ve had enough, think about watching the film. But do it through closed fingers, because it turns into a horror movie for all the wrong reasons, and the good doctor deserves better than to be immortalized on celluloid in his dotage when he has already achieved immortality with his words in his greatness.