“Leaving Las Vegas” (1995)

January 20, 2012 at 8:10 am (Cinema, Reviews & Articles)

Sometimes we look for happiness wherever we can find it, no matter how fleeting or self-destructive. Sometimes it’s at the bottom of a liquor bottle. Sometimes it’s with someone we know is wrong for us simply because we are lonely and need to feel the touch of another human being – even if only temporarily. Life has a way of grinding us down until we are left with nothing. For some of us, it’s our own bad choices that cause us to lose it all. Most of us still keep grasping at some form of happiness though.  

For Ben and Sera, they are two lost souls at the end of their rope. The thought of happiness has become just an illusion. We don’t know exactly what has driven them to the situations that they currently find themselves in, but to those around them they have become outcasts of society.

Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) is aHollywoodscreenwriter who has just lost his job due to his excessive drinking. He breaks down in his boss’ office. He was once successful. He’s now left with nothing in life, except the promise of another bottle. It’s become his only friend and his biggest enemy.   

He’s already lost his wife and son. Did she leave him because of his drinking? Did he begin drinking after she left him? Perhaps his wife and child died in an accident which set him on his current destructive course? Perhaps he is the one who accidentally caused their death? Who knows. Even Ben no longer remembers the reason why he is now alone and drinking so heavily. You get the impression that somewhere along the line something emotionally devastating has happened to him and he has learned to deal with it by obliterating all feelings and emotions. 

In the opening scene, Ben is happily filling up his shopping cart with bottle after bottle of various types of liquor. His actions give the impression of a man without a care in the world. We sense that his cheerful demeanor is just a façade though. Later we see him bumming money off of friends and pathetically trying to pick up a woman in a bar, while desperately hoping to keep the DTs at bay. Without a drink, Ben shakes so badly that he can’t even sign a check at the bank and has no choice but to leave.   

There is little backstory details about his life. Perhaps it really doesn’t matter how he got to this low point. The fact is, he’s lost his family, his friends, his job and his will to live. He’s also lost his self-respect. He has decided that he wants to literally drink himself to death and blow his life’s savings, and so he leaves everything behind inL.A. and heads to Las Vegas in order to accomplish this goal. His mind is so clouded by alcohol that he no longer even knows why he wants to kill himself – only that he does.  

He quickly meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a hooker who gets beaten around by her pimp when she doesn’t make enough for the evening. She’s clearly seen it all and very jaded about life. She never lets her tricks get to know who she really is. She never even tells them her name. It’s all just business to her. She insists to an unseen therapist that her life is going well. Yet, there is an intense loneliness that she feels. It’s obvious she wants more from life but doesn’t know exactly what it is. What are her reasons for becoming a prostitute in the first place? Did her father beat her or molest her? Was she raped? The details of her backstory are even less filled in than Ben’s are, but situations like this usually point to a bad childhood.

Ben and Sera first meet when he almost runs her over. With the way that he guzzles whole bottles of liquor as he is driving, it’s amazing he hasn’t yet killed himself or someone else. One night, on the street, he asks her back to his hotel room in order to have sex. Once there, he tells her that he is really paying for her to just stay with him and talk. He tells her of his plan to drink himself to death. Despite a room full of liquor bottles and his heavy drinking it’s clear she doesn’t quite know whether to take his admission seriously or not. He tells her it should take about a month or less. She makes light of his admission. She’s instantly taken with him for some unexplainable reason. Perhaps she feels sorry for him. The fact that he is a drunk doesn’t make him less of a human being in her eyes. In fact, it makes him more of a human being, imperfections and all. She falls asleep in his arms. She even tells him her name.

After Yuri, her pimp, frees her she goes looking for Ben again. They have their first date and afterwards she invites him to stay at her place. She is lonely and doesn’t want him to leave. He thinks that she’s some kind of angel but he tells her that she can never ask him to give up drinking, and she says that she understands. They have accepted each other for exactly who they are – at least for now. Obviously, though, it’s a love affair that is tragically doomed. Because of his ceaseless drinking and constant blackouts he is unable to make love to her. It’s clear that she is slowly getting frustrated and tries to get Ben to see a doctor. He refuses. And despite his initial assurance that her profession doesn’t bother him you see Ben feeling moments of jealousy over it.

One night Ben goes out gambling on his own. Sera comes home to find that he has betrayed her and she throws him out. After she gets brutally gang-raped by a bunch of teenage boys she is ready to forgive Ben. Perhaps she realized that he was so drunk that he didn’t really know what he was doing. Or perhaps she just realizes that the end is near for them and doesn’t want things to end on a bad note. After unsuccessfully trying to locate him, he calls her. She finds him in a dark room, laying in bed, shaking badly. He is clearly on the verge of death. They spend one last night together and finally make love – or as much as he is physically able to at that point. He whispers “wow” and drifts off. We next see Sera talking to her therapist about how much she loved him.

What will happen to Sera from this point on? Who knows. For perhaps the first time in her life, though, someone actually made her feel something. And even though she admitted to him earlier in the film that she was just using him because of her loneliness, we know it was more than that. It might not have been “real love” in the normal sense, and there was no way it could have lasted had he continued to live, but these two broken people touched each other deeply.

Leaving Las Vegas, which won the Golden Globe for best drama, started off as a novel written by John O’Brien, who committed suicide two weeks after finding out his book would be turned into a movie. His father said that the book qualified as a “suicide note.” Perhaps that’s true. What amazes me is the fact thatHollywood produced this film without trying to soften it or give it a phony happy ending. Every minute rings true to real life. The only thing that I question is whether Ben’s character could possibly drink that much in one sitting and still remain conscious, as well as not get alcohol poisoning. Then again, you get the impression that he has slowly built up a high tolerance to booze over a long period of time, so it’s plausible.   

Nicholas Cage gave the best performance of his career and deservedly won both the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for this role. Elisabeth Shue was nominated for Best Actress and her performance matches Cage’s every step of the way. They are simply amazing and fearless together.  

Director Mike Figgis, also up for an Academy Award, shot the film in super 16mm to give it a more natural, independent feel. If only all films were shot with this much love and care.   

This is an incredibly sad film. It is sad, yet it is heartbreakingly poignant and moving. You know how it will end all along yet its predictability takes away nothing from it – in fact, it’s more powerful because of it. You know these two people are doomed, you know there is no way that things can work out for either one of them – alone or together – yet, they find a little bit of grace on their way down. This film makes us care about people that we would ordinarily look down upon. It shows us that we are all just lost souls trying to find our way in this world. Some of us never experience happiness. Some of us only feel it for a moment. Sometimes that’s enough.    

Jay Mucci


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