Patricia Arquette’s Hunter S. Thompson-inspired drama – The Hollywood Reporter

Gonzo girls, Patricia Arquette’s feature film debut, is not technically about Hunter S. Thompson. It’s about a Hunter S. Thompson Type, Walker Reade (Willem Dafoe), invented by Cheryl Della Pietra for her semi-autobiographical novel inspired by her brief stint as Thompson’s assistant. But it’s not really about Walker either. Its heroine is Alley Russo (Camila Morrone), Della Pietra’s fictional counterpart, a recent college graduate brought from obscurity to help her idol write his new novel.

Through Alley’s eyes, we learn the idiosyncrasies of this genius, experiencing both his magnetism and his casual cruelty. It is Alley’s journey that we follow into the almost surreal chaos around him, and Alley’s career goals that we are meant to root for. But Rebecca Thomas and Jessica Caldwell’s uneven script undermines its own goals. At the end, Gonzo girls is more compelling as a portrait of an icon in decline than as a portrait of a rising star wresting control of his own story.

Gonzo girls

The conclusion

More convincing than the portrait of a fading star than a rising one.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Discovery)
Pour: Willem Dafoe, Camila Morrone, Patricia Arquette, Elizabeth Lail, Ray Nicholson, Leila George, James Urbaniak
Screenwriters: Rebecca Thomas, Jessica Caldwell
Director: Patricia Arquette

1 hour 47 minutes

Walker comes into his own clearly from the film’s opening moments, as the “father of gonzo journalism” launches into a book reading with the swagger of a rock star. At this point in Dafoe’s career, it’s hardly news that he can be very good at achieving great success, but it’s still a joy to watch him work. Walker radiates with a white-hot charisma that makes it clear why so many are drawn to him, and burns with an unpredictability that gives his very presence an air of danger. This is the (not quite) Hunter S. Thompson persona who has charmed fans since the 1960s and whose sunglasses-covered grin has been immortalized in films Fear and terror in Las Vegas and which lives on in cultural memory today as an unmistakable icon and familiar archetype.

However, by the time Alley reaches Walker’s hideout in Colorado in the 1990s, he’s more likely to snort lines than write them. Alley was hired to stay by his side from nine p.m. to five in the morning and do whatever it took to keep him typing until two in the morning. “We both know it’s a deception,” she thinks to herself in one of them Gonzo girls‘s intermittent voiceovers. “He hasn’t written anything worth reading in 15 years.” Nevertheless, driven as much by her desire to prove herself to her literary hero as by her desire for the money that this job promises her, she throws herself headfirst into his dizzying everyday life from parties, drinking and shopping sprees.

Soon Alley is drunk, and not just from the mountains of cocaine and the streams of whiskey. “He has the ability to make everything seem like an adventure,” she marvels. A picnic with Walker is never just a picnic, but an opportunity for him and his movie star bestie (Ray Nicholson) to troll their neighbor Rick Springfield (playing himself) with fireworks; An afternoon hang with a friend turns into a glorious color battle. So Alley takes the drugs he offers her, learns to hang out with his party crowd, and trades in her frumpy college sweaters for lace minidresses. She develops a relationship with Walker that is so flirtatious that it draws the ire of his current lover, the perpetually drunk and bikini-clad Devaney (Elizabeth Lail). And she writes – she rewrites Walker’s prose before faxing the pages to his editor (James Urbaniak), and in her free time writes her own observations in a diary.

Gonzo girlsOne of his strengths is that he is not interested in judging his characters too harshly. Even as the film acknowledges the uneven power dynamic within its central couple, it gives Alley the opportunity to make her own decisions and process her own complicated emotions in the face of Walker’s vast influence. Arquette loves a striking sequence that immerses us in Alley’s subjective experience – golden sparks and cooing Italian to represent a drunken, romantic high, dazed hallucinations to capture her disorientation on LSD. Taken together, they convey the ecstatic excitement of her time with Walker, if not necessarily the emotional exhaustion that came with it.

But Alley is kept at arm’s length by a clumsy script that seems to make her transform overnight. We’re barely given a chance to analyze how Alley feels about the world she’s been thrust into before she becomes a part of it – or to wonder later if she’s in too deep before she’s warned by a concerned friend that it is her. Morrone is a sympathetic screen presence, delving into Alley’s curiosity or anger, tenderness or sorrow. But their tears would surely grow stronger if we better understood where they came from. (By now, the supposed sexual tension between Morrone and Dafoe is so broad that we sense neither their joy nor their danger.) Gonzo girls It could never be completely boring if there was always another substance to try, another party crowd to charm, or another big speech to write down. But neglecting its supposed edge doesn’t really make it compelling.

Walker is easier to analyze, in part because he is preceded by the legend of the real Thompson. The myth of the supposedly unique male genius is contradicted Gonzo girlsThe emphasis is on the strenuous group work required to maintain it, and much of this is done by women. Although he has built his reputation and fortune on the power of his words, Alley’s attempts to get him to sit down and write are like squeezing blood from a stone. His day-to-day affairs – managing his staff, collecting his drugs, shoveling the peacock shit littered on his property – are left to Claudia (Arquette), a longtime assistant who is owed years of back pay. Walker’s always brash public persona attracts friends and admirers, but Gonzo girls also lets us immerse ourselves in quieter moments in which we cuddle platonically with Claudia or relive bittersweet childhood memories with Alley.

“Not everyone gets to be the main character,” Claudia muses about an increasingly disillusioned Alley, months into her stay. “We all do the book in our own way.” Her words, gentle as they may be, are for a young woman whose dream was to make her own name in the literary scene, rather than anonymously for someone else’s work, only limited comfort. The very existence of this film seems to be a rebuke to Claudia’s commentary, evidence that the main characters are not always where or who the world expects them to be. It’s just a shame that while the film focuses on Alley, it still keeps her at a distance. For all the indelible highs and lows of Alley’s time with Walker (or, one assumes, Della Pietra’s with Thompson) – and for his occasional, fleeting joys – Gonzo girls does not make a comparable brand.

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