Where the Buffalo Roam Review
Where the Buffalo Roam can claim to take us inside “the twisted legend of Hunter S. Thompson” many years before Terry Gilliam tried his hand at adapting Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Made in 1980 it also finds Bill Murray finding his feet as an actor, here taking on the lead role at a time when the early breakthroughs of Caddyshack, Stripes and Tootsie were still to come. Yet this shouldn’t be marked out simply for affording us some early glimpses. Rather than Taj Fukimoto as cinematographer, Neil Young providing the score, Ralph Steadman doing the “title splatter, Gonzo calligraphy and incidental artwork”, and Thompson himself as consultant, this has the air of the real deal.
That said, Where the Buffalo Roam is not a film to adhere to the standard biopic conventions and shouldn’t be considered as the definitive article on Thompson’s life. Indeed, Murray doesn’t even get top billing on the credits, rather that position is occupied by Peter Boyle as lawyer Carl Lazlo. Thus we get Thompson as seen through his experiences with the giant Samoan, once in 1968 and twice in ’72 as the writer covers both the Superbowl and the presidential campaign for Blast magazine. Moreover, it is Coyote who commands the attention – all runaway hair and oversized moustache, he communicates solely through his eyes a seemingly constant delight in all that goes on around him. Of course, such scene stealing is also undoubtedly intentional as it allows the filmmakers to approach Thompson from a deflected angle; they certainly don’t ignore, yet in providing some breathing room they also allow Murray to escape our undivided scrutiny.
Perhaps aware of this, Murray likewise avoids the full-on approach and instead offers a more idiosyncratic turn. Strangely recalling Robin Williams’ similarly oddball incarnation as Popeye from the same year, Murray swaps the pipe for a cigarette holder but retains the mumbles and singular take on his subject. Yet what’s most interesting is the manner in which the actor is also able to bring something of himself to the part. Though set in the late sixties and early seventies, it’s difficult not to detect an air of the early eighties. There’s a definite element of goofing off which fits in seamlessly with Murray’s antics in Caddyshack and Stripes (in some ways two of his most undiluted performances); indeed, fans of these earlier, more obviously Saturday Night Live-flavoured efforts should find much to enjoy.
Moreover, the manner in which Where the Buffalo Roams eulogises Thompson also places it firmly within the time at which it was made. He is undoubtedly portrayed as a complete hero and the indulgence in his demeanour and excessive intake are also plain to see. That said, the film does eschew any nostalgic impulses; remove the references to Nixon and marijuana and this could easily be 1980. Even the soundtrack only offers up a single Creedence Clearwater Revival track – and even that’s a lesser known track rather than the cinematically familiar ‘Suzie Q’, ‘Bad Moon Rising’ or ‘Fortunate Son’ – and Neil Young’s various coruscating takes on ‘Home on the Range’, one of which clearly prefigures his work on Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man.
What we have then is a picture of decidedly skewiff proportions. There may be some clear lines of direction – as the film progresses Thompson’s fame and status as a cultural icon clearly grow – but Where the Buffalo Roam is more intent on capturing an essence. Certainly, it’s less elusive than Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, say, yet the waywardness works. We may doubt some of its proclaimed truths – the meeting with Nixon especially – but in its own madcap way, the film does touch on what I hope would be something of the reality. Whether or not Thompson did actually pilot a place whilst sing ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ is beside the point, the fact that it appears to be conceivable is all that matters.
Sadly lacking extras in any form, Where the Buffalo Roam also struggles to truly impress with its presentation. We do get an anamorphic transfer (at a ratio of 1.78:1) and a clean soundtrack in its original mono form (albeit spread over the front two channels), but otherwise it can’t help but disappoint. At times the print appears excessively grainy, which prompts some noticeable artefacting, and also has a tendency to flicker on occasion. Admittedly, these are not constant worries, but then the softness of the image is. What we’re left with is, at the very least, watchable, though fans are advised to pick it up as part of the double pack with Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, thereby saving themselves a few pennies.