Leaving Las Vegas

Tucson Weekly

DIRECTED BY: Mike Figgis

REVIEWED: 02-01-96

Nicolas Cage LOOKS likes hell in Leaving Las Vegas--pasty, balding and dissipated. His clothes are askew and in most scenes he's damp with sweat. He looks like he must smell really bad. He plays Ben, a heartbroken, moribund alcoholic--just a total loser--in Mike Figgis' devastating film of drunken love and sodden despair.

We've certainly seen drunks in the movies before--Henry Chinaski in Barfly and Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend spring to mind--but unlike these characters, Figgis' Ben is unrepentant and completely devoid of romanticism. He's not talented or artistic or trying to change. He's a desperate guy who, for one reason or another, has checked into rock bottom. "I can't remember if I started drinking because my wife left me, or my wife left me because I started drinking," he says, early on, revealing a rare and intelligent clarity of purpose on the part of Figgis, who wrote and directed. This movie isn't a facile psychological treatise about why Ben is so fucked up, it's simply a long, hard look at the fact he is. The result is a deeply felt, melancholy film about a character who has surrendered to his pain.

Las Vegas is the perfect setting for such surrender, a last-chance town for those who feel lucky and those who don't. And basically no one is lucky in Leaving Las Vegas. The film begins with Ben losing his job as an L.A. scriptwriter because he's on a bender. He seems to have been on a bender for quite a while; one of the pleasures of this film is that it doesn't bother to fill in every little detail for you. We're left imagining why, exactly, Ben started drinking, and how long ago. But in scene after scene, we watch him guzzle hard liquor like water. He even brings a couple of bottles of vodka into the shower with him. In Vegas he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a sweet, vulnerable prostitute who takes a shine to him. They make a pact: She won't ever ask him to stop drinking, and he won't ever object to her choice of occupation. Then the film traces the erosion of that impossible pact.

It's an odd, desperate kind of love story. Both characters are so damaged the only way they can show affection for each other is to honor one another's sense of hurt. When Sera gives Ben a hip flask, his eyes cloud up with gratitude. "It looks like I must be with the right girl," he says. They buy each other gifts, they light out for the desert--on the surface, their story has the trappings of a traditional movie romance. But all the while, Ben is getting the shakes and vomiting, Sera's neighbors are becoming suspicious of her early-morning arrivals, and the film itself is moving at a slow, drunken, underwater pace. Figgis' direction is moody and full of tricks. Quick cuts, blurred neon, and an almost total lack of daylight scenes act as the visual equivalents of a fading consciousness. When Ben blithely trips down the aisle of a liquor store, the scene is shot through with short ellipses--little pieces of film clipped out--like clumps of brain cells gone missing in his head.

There's not a whole lot of dialogue here either; Figgis wisely lets music and images carry the film. It works because what we see is so powerful and appalling: Ben filling a grocery cart with bottles of liquor, drinking a beer underwater, swilling vodka in a car. And then there's his physical decay. "If you could see what I see," a bartender says, pouring him a shot in the morning, "you wouldn't be doing what you're doing." Figgis dispenses with the moral platitudes, but we see what the bartender sees, and it's far more vivid and moving than a simple warning that drink is evil.

Both Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage are convincing, though Shue's role of the good-hearted prostitute is less original. Ben is a far more complex character. I've always thought Nicolas Cage, the actor, has an inherently schmoozy edge; no matter what role he's in, deep down it seems like he's a user and operator. This calculated breeziness is a perfect background for the selfish, self-hating Ben. Cage also manages, with seeming effortlessness, to hold his character to a basic contradiction--he's both honestly regretful for drinking and completely unwilling to stop. When he's fired from his job, he emits a plaintive "sorry" that's all the more piercing because it's both heartfelt and resigned. The guy is sorry to be a drunk, but a drunk is what he is.

--Stacey Richter

Capsule Reviews
Leaving Las Vegas

Other Films by Mike Figgis
Loss of Sexual Innocence
One Night Stand

Film Vault Suggested Links
All Over Me
Barbecue...a Love Story
Breaking the Waves

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