‘This ain’t a party, it’s a safari!’ shouts one of the many noisy characters in Where the Buffalo Roam, an early attempt to get the writings of Hunter S Thompson onto the big screen; later efforts include Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and even the animation Rango which liberally borrows from Thompson’s wise-ass persona. With spattery captions by Ralph Steadman, a desert rockabilly sensibility, and a druggy friendship between a gonzo journalist and a lawyer of dubious morals, it’s definitely Hunter S Thompson, arguably in a pure form.
Bill Murray is the big draw here, immersing himself in the part to portray Thompson; we see him wrestling with a magazine publisher’s deadline and flashing back to several stories from his acquaintanceship with Carl Lazlo (Peter Boyle). Thompson doesn’t have much character development, his cigarette-holder, hat, garish shorts and sport gear are already in place, and his head is already somewhere else. But Lazlo changes; he’s introduced as a crusading lawyer fighting for the rights of the underprivileged, but later seems to have become some kind of arms dealer. The bulk of the film sees Lazlo disrupting Thompson at work, supposedly covering a Super Bowl from a hotel-room and then on the campaign trail with Richard Nixon. Both adventures lead to fact-free chaos, with the duo blasting Nixon with a fire extinguisher while riding the zoo plane of technicians and unfavoured journalists.
Gilliam went to great length to make Thompson’s hallucinations a visual reality, with bats, carpet creatures and all kinds of special effects. Art Linson’s film goes the other way; the drugs don’t work in terms of the audience, and we’re left with a cold watch as Murray and Boyle get convincingly loaded. There’s a scene in which Thompson and Lazlo pick up a hitchhiker who panics and runs for it after enduring some sinister chat; Murray is on point here, seemingly naked apart from sunglasses, rambling away in a convincingly druggy way. It may not be pretty, but it is honest; Thompson’s outpourings have rarely been so effectively visualised as when they’re not visualised at all, but left to our imagination.
Otherwise, there’s some very Murray moments here; the way the duo knock down a statue with their car captures the anarchic feel required, and their lack of respect for Thompson’s editor (Bruno Kirby) is also firmly on-message. There’s never been much love out there for the self-indulgence of Where the Buffalo Roam, but as a showcase for Murray, and as an advert for drugs, it’s persuasive stuff.