Leaving Las Vegas

Directed by Mike Figgis

This is a film that is not afraid to deal with despair in the extreme. Nicolas Cage plays Ben, a movie executive who for some reason has lost his family and turns to drink, or, at least that’s what he thinks. Early in the film he reveals that he’s been drinking so excessively for so long that he can’t remember if he drank so much that he lost his family or he lost his family so he started drinking. At the advanced stage of despair Ben is in, it doesn’t matter. He is suffering so much he has decided to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. He crosses paths with a hooker named Sera, Elisabeth Shue, who instantly feels a bond with him. Why, she can’t explain to herself, even though she realizes it IS real. It’s important that he simply "crosses paths" with a hooker, because his mind is solely on drinking. It isn’t until he literally runs into her that the thought crosses his mind that mindless sex could be an enjoyable idea. But Sera feels such a spark with Ben that she realizes he’s not just another ‘john’ but a decent guy who must be in terrible pain. She identifies with him so much because she shares the same type of despair Ben does, and realizes the opportunity to save her own soul by trying to save his, as his "angel," as he constantly refers to her. Trouble is though, that even after he finds his angel, he keeps drinking.

In one of the most revealing scenes, the two of them are poolside at a cheap motel and Ben is, naturally, oblivious to her presence because of his soaked mindset. She really wants him to ravish her, so she takes his bottle of booze and pours it over her breasts until, finally, he does. This scene may sound tawdry or corny, but because the two actors have successfully shown up to this point just how much of a bond their characters have, the fact that booze is used as an aphrodisiac here is a major triumph for both of them. They have reached each other halfway.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen two actors portray what real love and understanding looks like on screen. There is something so tangible in this film it almost feels voyeuristic. These characters love each other in such a way that since the hooker’s job is, obviously, to have sex with other men, the element of "cheating" is moot for her, but when she comes home one night to find that HE has been cheating, suddenly your mind freezes up and you don’t know what to think until you remember that outside of quickie oral sex you notice that they’ve never made love even though they are so obviously and operatically IN love. Wow.

In Leaving Las Vegas two of the most down and out characters forge the unlikeliest of bonds and for a fleeting moment experience true love in spite of the money changing hands, money which magically becomes superfluous as their guards are let down to reveal an empathetic passion so real it keeps ascending and swelling, going for a gigantic crescendo. You’ll notice that at the beginning of this film you hear blues which slides easily into jazz, and by the end of the film it has transformed into opera. So the range of emotions director Mike Figgis is dealing with on his palette go from despair to sentimentality to operatic overdrive. Opera goes for big emotions and follows them straight through the end. So does this film. It doesn’t compromise. It must have been hard to get a film like this made without somebody trying to soften the story or, God forbid, add a different ending. You can imagine some Hollywood producer saying that at the end they should traipse off arm in arm to the Betty Ford Clinic so everything will be all right. But because the budget of the film was what it was, not too many people had the right to dabble with the script.

This script is so good, based on the novel by John O’Brien (who committed suicide just before production on the film began) that at various times on the soundtrack when it fades out for effect you don’t need to hear the words that are being said to know what’s going on. I would say the only real flaw this film has is that Sera’s pimp gets squeezed out of the picture in a pretty clunky way, and when he does you realize that outside of the obligatory battering about he gives her, the two characters have nothing in common. In fact even though Sera is, underneath it all, a vulnerable character, the amount of strength she has would really warrant her being a call girl rather than a hooker. But I’m nit-picking. For all you aspiring filmmakers out there, take a look at this film as a demonstration of how you can make a masterpiece with not much more than two incredible actors. Shot in Super 16mm (one quarter the cost of a 35mm film), the graininess of the image is able to evoke the bittersweet seediness of the situation and the locale, so when you do see the love that these characters share it is that much more tangible and real.