Leaving Las Vegas

Leaving Las Vegas


Reviewed by: Scott Macdonald

Leaving Las Vegas is one of the sweetest, loveliest love stories I have ever seen in movies, written with all the surprisingly wry and horrific wit of a well-composed suicide note. It is a story of two lonely souls crossing paths and sharing what little precious time they have. It's an enormously successful film, so achingly sad and strangely fantastical in that we doubt such a story would occur, but the storyteller weaves such a spellbinding tale, that any surface criticism becomes futile.

Nicolas Cage - who won a richly deserved Best Actor Oscar for this performance - plays Ben, a thoroughly wretched alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter. He's sacked from his job and has nothing else to live for - we learn of a long-gone family (a wife and son in a photo album). So, in cold logic he decides to purge himself of nonessential possessions, drive out to Las Vegas and kill himself through drinking. It's all planned out in enough clarity, with "enough for $250 to $300 per day". One can only begin to imagine what demons could possibly drive him to such a slow, excessive crucifixion. "I don't remember; I just know I want to," he murmurs.

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"Are you saying that your drinking is a way to kill yourself?"
"Or killing myself is a way to drink!"

He meets professional prostitute Sera (Elizabeth Shue) on his first evening in the city, nearly knocking her over in an alcoholic haze in his soon-to-be-sold car. Almost immediately afterwards, he offers her $500 for an hour. But rather than some nonchalant sex, what Ben wants and needs is a friend, a welcoming ear. For reasons clear while watching the film, yet when summarised and written on paper seem unbelievable, Sera takes the woeful puppy-dog Ben under her wing and into her home.

An early scene with Ben where his boss fires him, is a curious, affecting moment - we can see the affection that they had for him once. Similarly so with Ben and Sera's first dinner together, where she questions him about why he wants to kill himself. Cage's performance hints at incredible intelligence beneath the dullness of the alcohol. There's a charm the sickness fails to destroy.

The real skill lies in the performances and the chemistry between Shue and Cage, as though no one told them that they were in a tragedy and should act accordingly. They don't care you're watching them. He drinks to bare oblivion, she does tricks for random strangers for cash - there's no pretension in either one.

Ben and Sera have only one ground rule for their relationship: No trying to change one another. They deal with this, even if they're not ambivalent to each other's self-chosen purpose in life.

"Maybe I should ask one of your clients what it would be like to sleep with you?" Ben says.
"They wouldn't know"

Shue is a revelation, having basked in dollfaced bit-parts for years and sadly sinking back to obscurity after Paul Verhoeven's Hollow Man. It's an enormous pity, her performance in Leaving Las Vegas is so gutsy, so human that I'm enormously saddened her obvious talent didn't lead to more interesting roles afterwards. Her back-story is only fleetingly doled out - through the storytelling, short throwaway moments and in a striking dramatic device of therapy sessions cut into the story at optimal points. We only see her face in these scenes, and yet the eyes - those deep pure eyes - could move mountains.

A simplified, yet adult sexuality and clear, pure love soak through the film - revealing far more than the cheapest stock characterisations of the misanthropic drunk and the hooker with a heart of gold. Cage and Shue transform them into believable people you feel you could talk with - transcending the usual boundaries of the screen and your heart. They also change roles several times throughout the story, they relate with one another as lovers, friends, and a nurse soothing her dying patient. The movie is a powerful character study of compulsions leading to tragedy, and despite their destinies, they are full of grace. If there's anything to be taken from the story, it is to have empathy and charity for one another.

Mike Figgis, the gifted and risk-taking director of Internal Affairs and Time Code shoots this picture with a raw and heartbreaking simplicity. He uses inexpensive Super16 cameras and a quick-shoot approach to getting the story he needs. The performances throughout feel fresh and spontaneous.

He never takes the easy way out. He fully shows the gruesome horrors of the final stages of alcoholism and Sera's vicious treatment by her Latvian pimp, Yuri and a later violation at the hands of frat boys. She puts herself in this dangerous situation as a self-imposed punishment - for turning her back on Ben. The movie feels like a lively and human blues number; it is so sad for both the outcome, but the warmth with which Ben and Sera share with one another. It's such a deep, pure and human story whose outcome is haunting and unforgettable. In a potent irony, Figgis composes a light jazz score to complement his great story - reminding us that we should celebrate the fact these characters found one another to begin with.

The third character in the movie is the city itself, Las Vegas: a caustic and artificial adult theme park in the middle of the desert. Always much too hot and busy, yet indifferent to what these people need.

Reviewed on: 19 Sep 2007
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Leaving Las Vegas packshot
A sensational, if doomed romance between a prostitute and a suicidal drunk.
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Director: Mike Figgis

Writer: John O'Brien, Mike Figgis

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Kim Adams, Emily Procter, Stuart Regen, Valeria Golino, Graham Beckel, Al Henderson

Year: 1995

Runtime: 111 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France, USA, UK


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