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Gonzo Artistry

by Rick Marshall on June 26, 2014

For No Good Reason
Directed by Charlie Paul

 

It becomes clear early in For No Good Reason that the life of the film’s subject, British artist Ralph Steadman, is so inextricably linked to that of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson that even a documentary about the former can’t help spending quite a bit of time reflecting on the legend of the latter.

For No Good Reason

It’s tricky to find the proper balance in such a situation, but director Charlie Paul does an admirable job of feeding the desire for wild stories of the pair’s famous/infamous collaborations while simultaneously providing perspective on how their work together affected the artist’s trajectory in work and life.

Loosely structured around a visit to Steadman’s home by Johnny Depp (who portrayed Thompson in the 1998 adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), For No Good Reason relates the artist’s early struggles to find a unique, gritty edge that will raise his work from cartoon to social critique and the experiences that led him to finding—and continually refining—the inimitable voice of his illustrations. It’s a path that, as Steadman suggests in the film, received an early nudge when he first partnered with the Fear and Loathing author on an assignment to cover the Kentucky Derby.

“I met the one man I needed to meet,” Steadman tells Depp of that assignment, which resulted in a 1970 article for Scanlan’s magazine titled “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved.”

The film spends quite a bit of time chronicling the ups and downs of Steadman’s relationship with Thompson, whose mercurial personality occasionally put the pair at odds. “He could be an absolute son of a bitch,” says Steadman of Thompson at one point in the film, which features an impressive amount of previously unpublished footage of both men at various points in their lives.

Tracing its way through Steadman’s life and career, For No Good Reason is also peppered with animated versions of the artist’s work that somehow serve as reminders of how much life already exists in his art. It’s a clever visual trick that makes for memorable segues.

For his part, Depp remains a background component of the film, serving as narrator and audience stand-in as Steadman whisks him around his studio, showing off his collections (and offering a brief explanation of his reluctance to sell his original work) and creating a new piece of art as the camera rolls. Depp’s role in the film is relegated to the occasional nod or reverent compliment, with the exception being when the pair discuss Thompson’s death and how they each received the news of his suicide.

It’s indicative of the connection between Steadman and Thompson that this chapter of the film also ushers in the closing act of For No Good Reason, with discussion of Thompson’s death leading into Steadman’s own anxiety about how much time he has left in the world.

While the film certainly has a lot to offer fans of both Steadman and Thompson’s work–who are likely to be the project’s primary audience–it also serves as a compelling portrait of a man of immense talent facing his own mortality and struggling to shape his legacy.