Leaving Las Vegas
Screenplay : Mike Figgis (based on the novel by John O'Brien)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1995
Stars : Nicolas Cage (Ben Sanderson), Elisabeth Shue (Sera), Julian Sands (Yuri), Richard Lewis (Peter), Valeria Golino (Terri), Steven Weber (Marc Nussbaum)
During an early scene in "Leaving Las Vegas," Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) drunkenly tries to pick up on an unwilling woman in a bar. He makes a fool of himself, and when the woman suggests that he shouldn't drink so much, he retorts by saying, "Yeah, well, maybe I shouldn't breathe so much."
That statement sums up Ben's mental framework. Not much information is given, but early on we learn that his wife and child have left him, his screenwriting career has hit rock bottom, and he has become an alcoholic. After he is fired, he burns his belongings, cashs in all his money, and moves out to Las Vegas for the sole purpose of anonymously drinking himself to death, quiet and alone.
But he doesn't anticipate meeting Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a high price Las Vegas prostitute who, in her own way, is just as desperate and lost in life as Ben. She has a sadistic pimp named Yuri (Julian Sands) who slaps her around if she doesn't bring in enough money. She likes to tell herself that her life is good, but deep inside she realizes that she is constantly being used by other people. As she puts it, when she's with a customer, she has to forget herself and assume a role. In Ben she finds someone with whom she can just be herself, something she hasn't been able to do in a long time.
"Leaving Las Vegas" is a love story. Not a conventional love story by any means, but one that takes two people who are in the lowest pits of humanity, and puts them together where they can live off each other. Ben needs someone who won't make him quit drinking, and Sera needs someone who won't make her be someone else. They don't so much love each other as they need each other.
But love story or not, this is a harrowing film experience. It deserves praise for its brilliant cinematography, assured direction, and Oscar caliber performances from both Cage and Shue. But at the same time, it is uncomfortable to sit through, and oftentimes borders on being unwatchable. The film is graphic, but the subject matter demands nothing less. It is hard to watch Ben's body slowly deteriorating through constant self-inflicted alcohol poisoning, and it is even harder to watch the aftermath of Sera's being gang-raped in a trick gone wrong. But these are images that are necessary for giving the film its emotional power. It's gut wrenching, but that's what it set out to be, and it delivers.
Director Mike Figgis knows how to capture emotional power. He spent ten years working with a theatrical group, and his ability to set scenes and let the actors play them out in a natural fashion gives the film a gripping reality. He bombards the audience with constant images of alcohol, never letting us forget that Ben spends not one sober moment on screen. Figgis captures the neon essence of Las Vegas nicely, but all the shots have been done many times before in films like "Indecent Proposal" and "Casino." What makes them seem fresh is that Figgis dares to go behind the glitz and show the moral decay and unhappiness that undermines all the glamour.
The performances by Cage and Shue are central to the film's success. Cage turns in the best acting of his career. He plays drunk so well, it's hard to imagine that he could have done it without actually being inebriated during the filming. He could have easily overacted, but he finds a perfect balance that conveys Ben's self destructiveness while keeping just a spark of humanity. There are precious few times during the film when Ben looks up at Sera and smiles, and it is almost like the person inside that he's trying to drink into oblivion has broken loose, if only for a moment.
Shue is perhaps the biggest surprise of the film, considering her only other leading part was in "Adventures In Babysitting." Sometimes it takes a controversial role to bring out the best in an actor, and Shue gives it all she has. She plays out the complexity of Sera gradually, sometimes a smooth and sexy professional, sometimes a mother figure, something an angel.
"Leaving Las Vegas" is a great film, one of the best of the year. If you can stomach it, it is a moving experience that says something about humanity and human experience. Even when you're at your lowest point in life, you're still human, and there's someone out there who's hurting just as much as you are.
Reprinted with permission The Baylor Lariat