Like everyone that’s ever done drugs or been inside of a college or university (or both), I’ve been enthralled with both the life and the work of outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson from the minute I finished my first page of his writing. There’s nothing more appealing than an anti-establishment rulebreaker, especially a gleefully mischievous one like Hunter was, and his work has been indescribably influential on my own writing.
Played most indelibly by Johnny Depp in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and The Rum Diary (2011), Bill Murray in Where The Buffalo Roam (1980), and Jay Bulger in Freak Power: The Battle of Aspen (2021), the character and persona of Hunter S. Thompson has been portrayed on-screen for years. The iconic red-tinted glasses and the mouth never seen without a cigarette hanging out of it. The Hawaiian shirts, shorts, and army jackets. The mechanics of his drawl are always different depending on the actor, but the drawl itself remains.
In Patricia Arquette’s debut directorial feature, Gonzo Girl, a not-so-anonymized adaptation of the journals of Cheryl Della Pietra, who worked as Thompson’s personal assistant for a period in 1992, Willem Dafoe adds his name to weather-worn bucket hat of Thompson avatars. Unlike other portrayals, though, Gonzo Girl amplifies Thompson’s persona to near-mythical status. He’s more Charles Manson here than Charles Bukowski, with hangers-on at every turn, his cult of personality drawing any into his sphere that are willing to overlook his problematic behaviour. Changing the names – Hunter Thompson to Walker Reade, most prominently, and Cheryl to Ally as well, feels like a bit of a smokescreen. We all know who’s who, here.
The three women most prominent in Walker’s life are Ally herself, who is tasked with spending evenings and nights shepherding Walker to his typewriter to produce pages as he battles looming deadlines, his current lover Devaney (Elizabeth Lail), and Claudia (Arquette), his weary secretary who keeps Walker’s life in order, or as much as one can expect. In a scene late in the film, Claudia comforts Ally by saying that, really, it’s these three that are producing these books and not Walker himself. There’s certainly a truth to this as we find Ally rewriting pages without Walker’s knowledge, and it makes a poignant point that few ‘great men’ are capable of being great without a heaping helping of, well, help.
Gonzo Girl, despite having some outstanding performances, falters a little in its scripting though. Ally’s transformation from ‘uptight’ (one might say professional and doing her job) to one of Walker’s harem of enablers feels a little too quick and unearned for my tastes. There’s a pinpoint moment when it happens, and it’s unclear what the motivation is besides Walker’s charm. In one moment, she’s resistant to wear a dress that’s too revealing, but in the next and for the rest of the film, that’s all she’s wearing. Dafoe’s Walker, and Hunter himself, are famously intoxicating in more than one sense of that word, but not that intoxicating. A single scene in which Ally and Walker take acid and trip around town is beautiful, but feels there just to be there. Threads seem to be introduced and just dropped with little fanfare or conclusion. There’s a feeling that the film is coasting on
Visually, Gonzo Girl has several beautifully-crafted scenes and a pitch-perfect sense of place, though Ally’s portrayal by Morrone feels a little too polished, even after she’s integrated into Walker’s circle and his world. There are times when it feels like a TV commercial that happens to be set on the Colorado ranch. Arquette’s Claudia is far more compelling as a character to me, someone that’s exasperated on a daily basis with the task of managing Walker, but is also fully in thrall to him, and whose loyalty never seems to waver.
Gonzo Girl‘s shortcomings aside, it’s buoyed by an absolutely perfect performance by Willem Dafoe. Managing to capture Thompson’s energy without feeling like an impression or parody, he makes a meal of every scene he’s in, which is most of them. It’s the meat on the bones of what’s otherwise a story that’s a little too thin, but it works in the end. As with all portrayals of this and perhaps any great man, his presence overwhelms. But it’s as the man says. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
Patricia Arquette’s Gonzo Girl played at the Toronto International Film Festival