'Leaving Las Vegas' : A brutal voyage through self-deprecating love

By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 5, 1996

While most movies play like artificially constructed entertainment fantasies, there are a few films that feel as if they have been torn from a filmmaker's soul. "Leaving Las Vegas" is such a film. The movie, which depicts a tragic romance between a hooker and a suicidal alcoholic, seeps with a weary atmosphere of unremitting pain. This is probably influenced by the fact that John O'Brien, the alcoholic writer who wrote the original novel, killed himself two weeks after he signed the movie rights.

The film begins with a man named Ben dancing his way down a liquor aisle, filling his shopping cart with what looks like a sample of everything in the store. He's a film production executive, but he's spending his days guzzling hard liquor and throwing hi mself at the women around him in an effort to forget his ex-wife and son. In slurred speech one night, Ben claims, "I can't remember if my wife left me because I drink too much or if I drink too much because my wife left me." The inevitable occurs and Ben is fired from his position, but he's given handsome severance pay from his compassionate co-workers. "What are you going to do now?" his supervisor asks him, and Ben answers that he's going to Las Vegas.

Driving to Vegas, Ben throws his head back and drains bottle after bottle of booze, arriving in the City of Lights in his perennial stupor. He soon meets a high-priced hooker named Sera and pays her $500 to sit in his hotel room and listen as he explains that he's come to Vegas to drink himself to death.

Sera is a hooker who frequents the casinos and chooses her clients from the wealthy, middle-aged men who want more from Vegas than the gambling tables. She grows attached to Ben's disillusionment and the two huddle from their social estrangement and find comfort in mutual acceptance and love. Ben insists that Sera can never ask him to stop drinking and Sera continues working the neon-splashed streets of visceral gluttony.

What follows is a brutal examination of an "ideal" relationship between two destitute lovers. Ben wakes up at night shaking so much he can barely stumble to the refrigerator and violently chugs Vodka mixed with orange juice. Despite Sera's growing affecti on, she continues to support his decision to die and they remain together as their self-destructive lifestyles carve their bodies into hollow vestiges of humanity.

The movie is carefully realized by British director Mike Figgis ("Internal Affairs") who uses grainer filmstock and a color-saturated look to depict a gritty world of flaring sunsets, crimson hotel walls, and the shifting blues of Vegas nightlife. The wea ry jazz score he provides lends the film an oppressive sadness that is ultimately realized by its two outstanding stars, Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.

Cage, who's built a career around playing a clumsy down-and-outer, has honed his performance as Ben into a pathetic character constricted with emotional pain. He's resigned from life to the point where even brief flashes of happiness flood his glazed-over eyes like sunshine through a muddy window. He's numbed himself to the world and Cage staggers through the film with vehement resignation sparked at times with legitimate, but useless, joy.

Elisabeth Shue, an actress known for mediocre roles in easily forgettable movies, shines as Sera, a woman searching for significance in a world of psychotic mobsters and a different lover every night. While Sera's relationship with Ben is completely self- destructive, Shue makes the audience believe that her own compassion can be subjugated simply for the opportunity to provide support to someone who needs her.

"Leaving Las Vegas" is a disturbing movie about two lovers who are lost in personal destitution who come together and promise to merely support the self-destructive behaviors in idealistic acceptance. The story's decision to avoid dramatic moralization or the glamorization of drug abuse is what keeps it realistic and makes it difficult to watch. The performances grant the characters believability and Figgis' storytelling places the drama uncomfortably in the audience's lap.