Leaving Las Vegas (Mike Figgis, United Artists, 1995)
A heart-breaking ode to doomed love, Mike Figgis’s masterpiece is a crushing portrayal of unconditional bonds shattered by addiction and aimlessness
‘Have you ever had the feeling, that the world’s gone and left you behind? Have you ever had the feeling, that you’re that close to losing your mind?'
As the sorrowful tones of Sting’s Angel Eyes cascade across a black screen, Leaving Las Vegas immediately positions itself as a solemn, dreary affair. Set amidst the garish neon glare of Nevada’s biggest metropolis, we follow the romantic exploits of a maltreated hooker and a suicidal drunkard, despondently navigating the smut and sleaze of Sin City, forlorn and forgotten. Popcorn anyone? Make no mistake, this is a coarse, unflinching film about vice and frailty, but much more than that, it’s an oddly moving account of unconditional love – a movie that transcends the baseness of its environment, and in the end, becomes something peculiarly meaningful and true.
With skin bleached and speech slurred, Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is Vegas’s newest resident. Jibing through sunken, haggard eyes, a flippant exterior masks a potent, underlying sadness. A botched screenwriter, Ben’s floundering career was recently aborted by a teary studio exec, loath to let him go. ‘We really enjoyed having you around,’ the man musters, choking back emerging tears, encapsulating an affecting opening setup. Ben is charismatic, kind and considered, and it’s this relatability that makes his spiral all the more painful as we witness it unfold. From here, possessions are abandoned; a faded photograph of an estranged wife and child tossed into the flames of a burning barrel. With a generous severance cheque as fodder, Ben boards a one-way flight to the City of Lights, and here, proceeds to seek oblivion. An aching, protracted suicide, Ben’s single-minded in his aim. To drink himself to death by the close of the month is an ambitious undertaking, but it’s one he feels obliged to fulfil, even when he can’t remember why. In something of a paradoxical turn, it’s this downward spiral that opens him up to a world of companionship and redemption, and when it happens, it’s unearthed in the most unlikely of places.
Hardened by the grime of her occupation, prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue) wanders the shadowy sidewalks of the Vegas strip, lost and adrift. Figgis never feels the need to explicitly spell her out; her pain brilliantly rendered in the subtleties of Shue’s performance. Like Ben, we don’t need redundant exposition to detail the particulars of her predicament. We can see it in her face. She’s been there. Trafficked and abused by a vile, cosmopolitan pimp named Yuri (Julian Sands) she’s in search of some kind of connection that reaches beyond the superficial humiliation of her job. That’s when she meets Sanderson, and for a while, everything begins to change.
It may be offbeat and uncharacteristic, but this is a love story like no other, and it’s beautifully frank. As the film flits between the customary activities of dating in its beginning phases – conversations, dinners and dates – both are forced to face up to each other’s ugliness, yet they always remain invested and attached. Confronted with the harshness of each other’s imperfections, Ben and Sera stay. They accept one another wholly and truly. They don’t just want each other, they need this, and it’s a dynamic that makes their relationship so refreshingly pure. In another world, maybe this romance would flourish into something more sustainable, but right from the off, there’s a creeping, ephemeral feeling to all of this romance. Every scene has a pitiful edge. Even as we will Ben and Sera to sort themselves out, to become better for each other, unavoidability hangs over every interaction. And it’s devastating.
Shot in muted 16mm contours, Mike Figgis’s vision of John O’Brien’s bleak 1990 novel vividly evokes the heady, altered states of an unsteady booze-up. With strange flash cuts and off-kilter editing techniques, the erratic motions of an intoxicated binge are burnt into the aesthetics, like some jumbled confession spilled at the counter of some dingy dive. There’s a gritty, guerrilla style of filmmaking as handheld cameras suggest the hectic actions of a fumbling drunk, struggling to locate the next bar, the next drink, the next distraction. It’s all tied together with Figgis’s mournful jazz score and Sting’s recurring balladry, underscoring the ironic gloom of a city that seems to be always dark, yet always bright. It’s a perfect example of a director using filmic language to emphasise the tone of the material he’s tackling, and it’s mesmerising to watch.
It’s easy to forget that Nicolas Cage ever had an Oscar attached to his name. Never has there been a role so perfectly suited to the madcap energy of his widely parodied persona – and never since has Cage so effortlessly embodied a character like he does here. Playing upon the zaniness of his scenery-chewing reputation, Ben Sanderson is a man that exemplifies the classic Cage shtick: exaggerated mannerisms, offbeat behaviours and drunken disarray. Describing the research he undertook in preparation for the role, Cage spoke of recording his inebriated speech patterns, and then mimicking the results. It’s impressive, but it’s Shue who really ties this tale together – her believability grounding Cage’s more erratic turns in a way that makes the story heartfelt and relatable.
A fortnight after discovering that his novel was being commissioned by Hollywood, novelist John O’Brien committed suicide in his LA home. By situating this tale amidst a city famed for its grime and filth, the genuineness of Ben and Sera’s connection becomes something of a beacon we latch onto. Be they fact or fiction, lost souls collide in this version of Vegas. And somewhere out there in all that desert, there’s a light that glints, albeit with a fleeting flicker.
Leaving Las Vegas is available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Amazon Prime