Hunting Buffaloes in Bat Country

Well, The Rum Diary has now come and gone from theaters with much the speed and ambiguity that one might have predicted for a film of its type. Much talked about and yet simultaneously largely ignored. One thing it has done though is deliver a speedball to the cult following of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. There will be another time when I devote words to dissecting, inspecting, and injecting the ins and outs of that particular following, but at this port of call my intent is to retrospectively review a less examined expression of the same.

Where The Buffalo Roam is a 1980 film which starred Bill Murray portraying Hunter Thompson. It is presented as a collection of vignettes based on episodes from Thompson’s life and writing (which in his Gonzo style are almost impossible to extricate from one another), particularly his relationship with attorney-activist Oscar Zeta Acosta, here styled as Carl Lazlo and played by Peter Boyle. It is also the first attempt at putting Thompson’s work to celluloid.

It is difficult to look at this film solely as an independent work. That is, the temptation is omnipresent to draw comparison with the later Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which has become something of a cultural touchstone and a kind of Thompson film canon. I have tried from a couple of angles to tackle this without referencing the other movie, but the fact is that F&L casts such a long shadow as to make it nearly impossible.

Buffalo‘s prototype status is apparent in a couple of ways. First, its drug use is noticeably more subdued, both in emphasis and execution. It still occurs, and often, but it is referenced less directly. The effects of the drug use in the film are also illustrated almost totally through Murray’s mannerisms and body language, as opposed to the phototropic holocaust presented us in Fear and Loathing. That film shares with its antecedent a problem of highly disjointed narrative, but whereas F&L could always lean on the aforementioned drug use distorting the narrator’s perceptions, Buffalo can only lay blame with a hastily glued together screenplay and a generalized lack of pacing. While its certainly entertaining to watch Murray’s performance as Thompson (which I’ll talk more about later) as he meanders from scene to scene, sowing mayhem in his wake, after a while you start to wonder when a plot is going to emerge. Then the end credits roll and you realize that that was it. The only character with much of a proper arc is Lazlo, and it occurs almost entirely off-screen. The frequent use of Neil Young’s quavering rendition of the title song gets distracting, and while I’m pretty sure I get what they were going for with it (reinforcing the theme of the “freaks” being more properly American than the flag waving men in suits), I feel they could have found a less obtrusive way to communicate it.

Another area where its hard to avoid making comparisons is in the actual portrayal of the Thompson persona. Johnny Depp has all but staked out the role in the collective consciousness of our generation, having now performed it twice (three times if you count his frequent readings in the Thompson documentary Gonzo) and being an actor with more anchors in  contemporary pop culture. Bill Murray can’t help but seem a little dated, a representative of our parents’ comedy. He’s funny, but you’d be hard pressed to call him “hip.” As such, he may seem miscast in the role, or at least in the role as we have come to envision it. Admittedly, he does have a bit of a problem keeping himself in the Thompson character, tending to slide back into the Murray-isms and stock beats we’re all familiar with. When he gets it though, he fucking nails it. Depp eloquates very well Thompson’s unique written voice, a boon in the narration driven Fear and Loathing, but Murray (barely 30 at the time) almost perfectly captures the muttering, rambling, exasperating  style of the real life Thompson.

Is Where the Buffalo Roam some kind of lost classic? No.  Is it an underappreciated film with a unique vision that’s worth 96 minutes of your time? I would say yes.

Now, to do something about those damn bats…

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