Gonzo Girl, Patricia Arquette’s feature directorial debut, is not technically about Hunter S. Thompson. It is 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 fictionalized analogue, a fresh-faced college grad plucked from obscurity to help out her idol as he writes his new novel.
It is through Alley’s eyes that we come to know the quirks of this genius, experiencing both his magnetism and his casual cruelty. It is Alley’s journey we trace into the near-surreal chaos surrounding him, and Alley’s career aspirations we’re meant to root for. But Rebecca Thomas and Jessica Caldwell’s uneven script undermines its own aims. In the end, Gonzo Girl is more persuasive as a portrait of a icon in decline than it is of a rising star wresting control of her own story.
The Bottom Line
More convincing as a portrait of a fading star than a rising one.
Walker comes through loud and clear from the film’s first moments, as the “father of gonzo journalism” struts into a book reading with the swagger of a rock star. It’s hardly news at this point in Dafoe’s career that he can be very good at going very big, but it’s a pleasure to watch him work nonetheless. Walker glows 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 edge of danger. This is the (not quite) Hunter S. Thompson persona that’s enchanted fans since the 1960s, whose sunglasses-clad smirk has been immortalized in films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and who lives on to this day in the cultural memory as both distinctive icon and familiar archetype.
By the time Alley gets to Walker’s Colorado hideaway in the 1990s, however, he’s more prolific at snorting lines than writing them. Alley’s been hired to stick by his side from nine at night until five in the morning, doing whatever she must to get him typing by 2 a.m. “We both know it’s a sham,” she thinks to herself in one of Gonzo Girl‘s intermittent voiceovers. “He hasn’t written anything worth reading in 15 years.” Nevertheless, driven in equal measure by her desire to prove herself to her literary hero and her need for the money this job promises her, she throws herself headfirst into his dizzying routine of parties, benders and shopping sprees.
Before long, Alley finds herself intoxicated, and not just by the mountains of cocaine and rivers of whiskey. “He has an ability to make everything feel 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 devolves into a glorious paint fight. So Alley takes the drugs he offers her, learns to hang with his hard-partying crowd, trades her frumpy college sweaters for lacy minidresses. She develops a rapport with Walker flirtatious enough to attract the ire of his current squeeze, the perpetually soused and bikini-clad Devaney (Elizabeth Lail). And she writes — rewriting Walker’s prose before faxing the pages to his editor (James Urbaniak), and scribbling her own observations in a journal in her down time.
Gonzo Girl‘s disinterest in judging its characters too harshly is one of its strengths. Even as the film recognizes the uneven power dynamic in its central pair, the film grants Alley the agency to make her own choices and work through her own complicated emotions in the face of Walker’s towering influence. Arquette adores a showy sequence to bring us into Alley’s subjective experience — golden sparks and cooed Italian to denote a boozy romantic high, woozy hallucinations to capture her disorientation on acid. Collectively, they convey the ecstatic excitement of her spell with Walker, if not necessarily the emotional exhaustion accompanying it.
But Alley is kept at arm’s length by an awkwardly paced script that has her transform seemingly overnight. We barely get a chance to parse how Alley feels about the world she’s been thrust into before she becomes a part of it — or, later, to wonder if she’s in too deep before she’s being warned by a concerned friend that she is. Morrone is a likable screen presence who pours herself into Alley’s curiosity or her anger, her tenderness or her anguish. Yet her tears would surely hit harder if we understood better where they were coming from. (Meanwhile, the supposed sexual tension between Morrone and Dafoe is cast in such broad strokes that we feel little of either its pleasure or its peril.) Gonzo Girl could never be totally boring when there’s always another substance to be tried, another party crowd to charm, another grand speech to jot down. But the shortchanging of its ostensible lead makes it less than fully engaging.
Walker is easier to parse, in part because he’s preceded by the legend of the real Thompson. The myth of the supposedly singular male genius is contradicted by Gonzo Girl‘s focus on the strenuous group effort required to prop it up, much of it done by women. Though he’s built his reputation and his fortune on the power of his words, Alley’s attempts to get him to sit down and write seem akin to squeezing blood from a stone. His day-to-day affairs — managing his staff, picking up his drugs, shoveling the peacock shit littering his properties — are left to Claudia (Arquette), a longtime assistant owed years of back pay. Walker’s consistently brash public persona draws friends and admirers, but Gonzo Girl also lets us into quieter moments spent cuddling platonically with Claudia or rehashing bittersweet childhood memories with Alley.
“Not everyone gets to be the main character,” Claudia muses to an increasingly disillusioned Alley, months into her stay. “We all make the book in our own way.” Her words, gentle though they are, come as limited comfort to a young woman whose dream has been to make her own name on the literary scene, not toil anonymously for someone else’s. This film’s very existence would seem a rebuke to Claudia’s comment, proof that main characters are not always where, or who, the world expects them to be. It’s only too bad that, having put Alley front and center, the film nevertheless keeps her at a distance. For all the indelible highs and lows of Alley’s time with Walker (or, one can presume, of Della Pietra’s with Thompson) — and for its occasional, fleeting joys — Gonzo Girl makes no comparable mark.