Monday Movie: Where the Buffalo Roam, by David Bax
Every Monday, we’ll recommend a movie–it could be a classic, an overlooked recent treasure, an unfairly maligned personal favorite or whatever the hell we feel like–and we’ll tell you where to find it online.
From the opening titles of Art Linson’s Where the Buffalo Roam (which run over shots of buffalo, naturally), it’s clear that an impressive list of collaborators was assembled for this fictionalized account of the life of Hunter S. Thompson, journalist. It’s not just the cast–Bill Murray, Peter Boyle, Bruno Kirby, Mark Metcalf–or the cinematography by Tak Fujimoto or even the music by Neil Young. It’s also that the titles themselves appear to have been created by longtime Thompson illustrator Ralph Steadman. And, of course, there’s the credit for Executive Consultant: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson himself.
Murray plays Thompson as Where the Buffalo Roam skips through his career, focused mostly on his fascinating, volatile friendship with his attorney, Oscar “Zeta” Acosta, here renamed Carl Lazlo and played by Peter Boyle. In between assignments covering big media events like the Super Bowl or the 1972 presidential campaign, Thompson tags along on his lawyer’s exploits, from defending marijuana possessors in court to running guns to Latin American revolutionaries.
Eighteen years after Where the Buffalo Roam, Terry Gilliam would make Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The latter is an even more explicitly fictionalized film (this time, both character’s names are changed) but it has become the more indelible Thompson portrait. You can chalk that up to Gilliam’s embrace of the gutsick danger of a bad trip where Linson opted for the counterculture version of “great man” hero worship and also to Depp’s energetic, sweaty, itchy commitment where Murray mostly just mumbles. The recent words and actions of both Depp and Gilliam have soured me on them but Fear and Loathing remains a singular film. It also warrants noting that Gilliam cast an actual Latino, Benicio del Toro, in the Acosta role. Acosta was a vital figure in the 1960s Chicano civil rights movement who provided legal defense to activists. As great an actor as Boyle is, it feels like a bit of an insult to see him in Acosta’s (sorry, Lazlo’s) shoes.
Where the Buffalo Roam is episodic and, like many movies of that nature, it is spotty in terms of quality (especially in the overlong campaign sequence at the end). Bill Murray will always be Bill Murray but Linson seems both too willing to let his star improvise and at a loss as to what to do with the resulting footage. The final product has its charms but is mostly inert. For Thompson completists only.
Where the Buffalo Roam is available to rent on Amazon.