Movie Review of ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ (1995) dir. Mike Figgis
The film I want to write about today is my favourite film of all time, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ by director Mike Figgis. Despite both Nicholas Cage & Elisabeth Shue being nominated for Academy Awards for their flawless performances, with Nicholas Cage winning best actor for his unmatched performance of the character Ben Sanderson, ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is considered to many as an obscure indie film. This is a travesty to me, & while I will admit it is not an easy watch, it’s not a ‘feel good’ film you put on when you get home from work to unwind. It is a brutal, heart-wrenching film that shakes you to your core. & it deserves to be experienced, at least once.
For those who have not seen the film, here is a brief synopsis courtesy of IMDb.
‘Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood screenwriter who lost everything because of his alcoholism, arrives in Las Vegas to drink himself to death. There, he meets and forms an uneasy friendship and non-interference pact with prostitute Sera.’
‘Leaving Las Vegas’ stands out to me as being the first film I can recollect ever provoking such a profound, visceral response in me. I went from almost indifferent, less than enthusiastic movie-goer to full fledged film addict the second Figgis cut all sound effects & music as Ben Sanderson, played by Nicholas Cage, drank an entire bottle of whiskey in one hit & then silently screamed as he drove across the US interstate. I felt as though I had been awoken, or rather, I had seen Cage’s portrayal of agony & felt some level of understanding kindle within myself.
There is a popular saying; ‘she wants to be understood more than she wants to be loved’, & in watching ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, I felt understood. The combination of Cage & Shue’s powerful performances, combined with Mike Figgis’ masterful direction & score, I felt as though my own experiences of depression, addiction, pain, emptiness & hollowness were spilt out in front of my very eyes & like the proverbial train crash, I could not tear my eyes away as these two very flawed, although very in love characters, crashed & burned.
Cage’s depiction of Ben & his desperation is multi-faceted & brilliant. Ben is not your typical lost, hurt protagonist who just desperately needs a good woman to rid him of his bad boy ways & set him back on the right path. He is desperate, but this man does not want to be saved. He is not a man on the verge of death, no, rather he is on fire, & as they say ‘the fire is always brightest before it dies’, & this man is definitely going out with a bang. We do not know who or what hurt this man or led him to these events, but we know he is gone. Like a lit firework just before it shoots of into the sky to explode, he is already dead, but this does not diminish his fire or his colour. Cage acts on a level in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ that is beyond any other actor I have witnessed portraying an addict on film.
“I don’t know if I started drinking ’cause my wife left me or my wife left me ’cause I started drinking, but fuck it anyway.” – Ben Sanderson
‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is a true tragedy, in the Nietzschean concept, & Las Vegas, the city, the backdrop to this tragedy, handled by Figgis as a living, breathing character in itself, so artfully depicted in a dreamlike manner, often gently drifting in & out of shallow focus & slow motion, the film itself, the city, & the performances contained therein exist as a slow moan, with a bright, brooding, rapid & yet soft pulse.
“We both know that I’m a drunk. And I know you are a hooker. I hope you understand that I am a person who is totally at ease with that. Which is not to say that I’m indifferent or I don’t care, I do. It simply means that I trust and accept your judgement.” – Ben Sanderson
All of the actors performances, from Cage, Shue, Sands, bounce off of each other with a frenetic energy yet somehow find balance, an equilibrium, a resting point. They feed in & off each other hungrily, unrelenting, like the desire, energy & unbridled passion Las Vegas is made of.
Shue, who is easily one of the most underrated & underused actresses of her time matches Cage with her own powerhouse performance as Sera, the prostitute. Shue moves seamlessly through the two worlds Sera inhabits; the prostitute, who once her makeup is applied & sexy dress on becomes every man’s fantasy, & prides herself on her ability to do so. & then there is the Sera behind closed doors, minus the makeup and sexy dress, who is a humble, gentle & deeply caring woman, who despite all that she has endured still holds out hope for something she feels she probably doesn’t deserve, & what society has told her in no uncertain terms she does not deserve: Love.
Shue portrays an addict, as does Cage. Prostitution is in its own right a type of addiction. An act that provides quick, easy money, which can be addictive.& like Ben’s alcoholism, Sera is lost in this world of addiction, too. Disoriented, selfish as all addicts are, yet still with enough clarity to see Ben for what he really is, the man behind the bottle. She only sees brief glimpses of this man, but for her, a woman who has seen much in her short life, she recognises the out of the ordinary. For Sera, Ben is the only man who doesn’t just want the end product that her body can provide, the primal release paid for by the hour. She encounters a man who wants to talk with her, laugh with her, drink with her. He doesn’t want what everyone else wants. He just wants her company, not what she’s selling, he just wants her. The man Ben really is shines through to Sera, & this is the true tragedy of this film & of their tale. Ben is beyond saving, & perhaps in many ways so is Sera, even though she has a will to live.
“I think the thing is, we both realised that we didn’t have that much time. And I accepted him for who he was, and I didn’t expect him to change, and I think he felt that for me, too. I liked his drama, and he needed me. And I loved him. I really loved him.” – Sera
Unfortunately, in reality, which is what this film unwaveringly depicts, love stories rarely have happy endings. ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is a film that leaves me feeling emotionally gutted every time I watch it, which is not often. & while I may not watch this film over & over, it is my favourite film because of what it makes me feel. It shakes me by the shoulders and wakes me up, & that is a rarity in film these days. I consider ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ to be one of few perfect films ever made, & I you haven’t watched it yet, take your time & prepare yourself for a rough, yet purely validating, enlightening cinematic ride.