The Rotten Tomatometer: Where the Buffalo Roam
ROTTEN TOMATOES RATING: 25%
In 1980, Hollywood first attempted to make sense of the mind of Hunter S. Thompson. The result was Where the Buffalo Roam, Bill Murray’s ode to the famed Gonzo journalist, a film with all the ingredients for a disaster. Art Linson found himself in over his head as a first-time director working off of a script Thompson called “bad, dumb, low-level, low rent.”
His set was too pristine to accurately capture the feral Gonzo essence, and he went on to direct only one other film, 1984’s The Wild Life. Linson did manage to find more success as a producer, having had a hand in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Untouchables, Heat, Fight Club, and Into the Wild.
But what went wrong with his debut feature?
Bill Murray portrays the infamous journalist, with Peter Boyle sporadically appearing as his attorney/on-and-off friend Oscar Zeta Acosta, here called Carl Lazlo and later the basis for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ Dr. Gonzo. At the time of filming, Murray was a weekly star on Saturday Night Live and he took to this role the same as he would any of his sketch characters.
The film becomes a disjointed mess — jumping from Thompson in his Woody Creek homestruggling with another deadline, to his time covering Super Bowl VIII, as well as his historic coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign — but in a way, the flow of the film fits in with Thompson’s own mindset.
Compared to the other two film adaptations of Thompson’s work — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Rum Diary — this is more of a career overview compared to the contained elements of the others. Those films concerned themselves with a single book, this one traverses many years retelling several of Thompson’s articles.
Something like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and the surreal film it became, is unlike any of the straightforward adventures presented here.
Having read Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (1972) there’s nothing in there as abstract as a majority of what appears in “the Vegas book” — the demeaning term Thompson himself came to call his most famous work.
He was constantly rebelling against authority, as this film shows on more than one occasion, and he would never concur with what the masses (in this case, Hollywood) approved of. But that’s not to say he was against his work being made into a film. For years he tried to get The Rum Diary made into a movie, though he arrived at death’s door before it finally did reach theaters back in 2011.
Anyone coming to this after Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would of course be disappointed, just as they would be in reading the books they’re based on.
Thompson unfairly and incorrectly became a role model for the drug culture, and while he was known to partake in nefarious means, he was so much more than that. And this film shows that, although not perfectly. But in some ways, it’s more honest.
Yes, there’s the drug use, but it also explores his relationship with Acosta, and his overall penchant for politics. He took an honest look at legislators and wrote what he saw, unabashedly sharing his own thoughts and bluntly filling in the rest.
Frank Mankiewicz called his book “the least factual, most accurate account” of the entire electoral process. Thompson and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner devised the series of articles in the first place to oppose those accounts of politics that straddle the median, those that took no side, making for a boring read.
Thompson was anything but boring.
With Bill Murray in the lead role, it’s all mostly played for laughs (in a similar way Thompson’s writing adopted an absurdist sense of humor), and he is great in the role. He ably recreates Thompson’s cadence, a result of having spent so much time with the man that when he went back to Studio 8H for the following season of SNL, he had trouble dropping the mannerisms.
But the film does the important work to show the other side of Thompson. Even revealing that he wrote more than just Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is enough to discredit those young adults who flocked to him, turning him into an idol to justify their own experiments.
If just one person watches this movie and picks up a collection of his articles from Rolling Stone, or reads a transcript of “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” online, or even watches the documentary based on his life, Gonzo, then the film did its job.
It should be no surprise Thompson didn’t enjoy this iteration of his life’s work. It never got weird enough for him.