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
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.