For a writer whose specialty was his mad rush of words — careening, excessive, gloriously offensive and thoroughly “gonzo,” to use a word he may well have coined — Hunter S. Thompson has long been an irresistible image to put on screen. He was played by Johnny Depp in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” Bill Murray in “Where the Buffalo Roam” and a few others, and now it’s Willem Dafoe’s turn in Patricia Arquette’s directorial debut, “Gonzo Girl.”
Rather, it’s Dafoe’s turn to play somebody like Hunter S. Thompson. In the movie, which had its world premiere on Thursday night as one of the opening-night attractions of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, Dafoe is “Walker Reade,” a wild-eyed journalist and author who lives in Woody Creek, Colorado and loves guns, drugs, alcohol and messing with people — not necessarily in that order. The fact that all of those things also apply to H.S.T. is not a coincidence, since the film was loosely adapted from Cheryl Della Pietra’s semi-autobiographical novel about her brief time as an assistant to Thompson as he tried to finish a long-overdue book in 1992.
So Reade is not Thompson, but he’s a hell of a lot like Thompson. And that puts Dafoe in the shadow of some notable on-screen Thompson clones. Meanwhile, Arquette’s in the position of having to capture both the artistry and the persona of a man for whom the latter would come to almost completely overwhelm the former.
Fortunately, Dafoe has long since shown that he’s not a man to shy away from excess in his performances. He’s fierce and funny, appropriately larger than life and perpetually on the edge in “Gonzo Girl.” He’s wacky and dangerous, but he also finds room for genuinely touching moments where you see the talent underneath the character. (This is a man who can and does rhapsodize eloquently about LSD, guns and licking garlic off a woman’s nipple, but also about the glory of finding exactly the right word when he’s writing.)
Arquette’s first directorial assignment didn’t give her a big budget, but it did give her a big challenge: Put the insanity of Thompson’s prose, and the WTF incidents in Della Pietra’s book, on the screen. She does so with a zest that made it appropriate to have the TIFF premiere in the Royal Alexandra Theatre, home to the festival’s Midnight Madness selections. “Gonzo Girl” wasn’t in that section, but it takes place largely after midnight and it’s filled with madness, as well as with the kind of crazy energy often found in those films.
This is set to a soundtrack of garage-y psychedelic rock ‘n’ roll — not the usual choices, but more obscure offerings like the opening blast of a “Sally Go Round the Roses” cover from Grace Slick’s pre-Jefferson Airplane band, Grace Slick & the Great Society.
So Arquette films LSD trips with the backgrounds moving and bending around the characters, staging a visit to Reade’s drug dealer (a big star in an extended cameo) in what you might call “pharma-vision.” The camera backs off and the action speeds up; then the camera moves and the action slows down; then the lens practically leers at Dafoe’s twisted face, sometimes coming in so close that a single one of his eyes fills the screen.
But the title is “Gonzo Girl,” which means that the Gonzo Guy who’s mugging and drugging frantically isn’t the main character in this movie. That would be Alley Russo, a young New Yorker hired to be the night assistant to Reade as he tries to finish his book. Since nighttime is the right time for Reade, she’s expected to do a lot of heaving lifting — most of which involves getting him to actually sit down at his typewriter and produce at least a page or two a night.
Russo is played by Camila Morrone, a current Emmy nominee for “Daisy Jones & the Six.” In that limited series, she played the wife of Sam Claflin’s Billy Dunne, a character who occupied roughly the same role in that project as Russo does in this one: She’s the sensible one on the periphery of the madness.
Except that she can only stay sensible for so long. When Russo gets to Colorado and sits down for a debriefing with Reade’s longtime assistant, Claudia (played by Arquette with a world-weary resignation but a sharp eye), she’s offered a hit on a bong. When she declines, Claudia gets right to the point: “Rule No. 1,” she says: “Stop saying no.”
So before long, Alley is drinking, drugging and partying along with the whole Reade menagerie of movie stars and hangers-on, and hangers-on who happen to be movie stars. At a certain point, Alley realizes that the only way to get the pages written is for her to add her own touches to her boss’ prose — and, well, that doesn’t go very well, even if Reade’s editor does like those pages at first.
In a post-screening Q&A, Arquette said she was drawn to the script by Rebecca Thomas and Jessica Caldwell because of the way it explored fame, addiction, co-dependency and creativity, among other topics that resonated with her own experiences. But “Gonzo Girl” never feels as if it’s discussing issues. Instead, it’s a blast of energy and excess in which even Alley stops worrying about whether the guy she’s partying with is going to miss another deadline, lose his book deal and have to pay back his sizable advance.
In the homestretch, it gets tiring, even though Morrone keeps us just grounded enough and even though Dafoe is always a blast to watch, wide-eyed and unhinged with just a touch of mad genius peeking through.
But then, isn’t that the point? A movie about Hunter S. Thompson — sorry, a movie about somebody who is not Hunter S. Thompson but is a lot like him — wouldn’t feel right if it didn’t keep going over the edge until everybody, including the audience, was exhausted.
“Gonzo Girl” is a sales title at TIFF.