Leaving Las Vegas (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Around the time that Mike Figgis began production of Leaving Las Vegas, John O'Brien, the author of the book upon which the film is based, shot himself in the head. This story, according to O'Brien's father, is his son's suicide note. And what an epitaph it is...

By their nature, most love stories are relentlessly optimistic. An upbeat tone and a happy ending are almost mandatory. So it's unusual for a romance to delve as deeply into the dark realms of the human psyche as Leaving Las Vegas. This motion picture is an examination of both the power and the impotence of love. That emotion is not, as some would have us believe, a magical cure to wipe away life's troubles and tribulations. Neither is it an unqualified gateway to salvation.

Leaving Las Vegas tells the story of Ben (Nicolas Cage), an unapologetic drunk, and Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute. After Ben loses his LA job, he takes his termination pay and heads to Vegas, that American mecca of glitz and greed where souls go to die. His intent is not to gamble, however, but to do something more certain: take a room in a flea-bag motel, buy as much booze as he can afford, and drink himself to death. By his estimation, that should take only a few weeks. But Ben is a lonely man and, even as his body craves alcohol, his heart yearns for companionship. So, when he sees Sera walking the streets, he offers her $500 for an hour. As it turns out, though, what he needs more than sex is a friendly ear. Thus begins the relationship that forms the film's core.

One of the reasons Leaving Las Vegas is so heartbreakingly haunting is that the unconditional love between Ben and Sera blossoms against a backdrop of desperation, loneliness, and self-destruction. Ben's only plea to Sera is that she never try to stop him from drinking. This is not a lesson movie like When a Man Loves a Woman, where the triumph over alcoholism forms the central dynamic. Instead, Leaving Las Vegas is about passion that flares brightly for a moment before being extinguished. The audience understands when Sera says, "We both realized that we didn't have that much time. I accepted him as he was and didn't expect him to change. He needed me. I loved him -- I really loved him."

Leaving Las Vegas wouldn't be as difficult to sit through -- equal parts transcendent beauty and unbearable pain -- if it weren't for a pair of magnificent performances. Since this is essentially a two-character story, nearly every scene is built around Ben, Sera, or (more frequently) both. Actor Nicolas Cage, who has a track record of immersing himself in parts, gives one of the year's most powerful acting turns. In this movie, the charisma and outward energy form a fragile shell over a pit of despair and self-loathing. Yet at the same time, there's a sense of freedom -- for Ben, death has lost its power to frighten. Cage melds all those elements into this complex, multi-layered portrayal. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Shue, whose filmography is far less impressive, matches Cage scene-for-scene, emotion-for-emotion. There's no glamour in this role, but we still see the beauty that attracts Ben -- tarnished and dulled, perhaps, but still obviously there.

Rarely does a motion picture create such conflicting emotions in the viewer. Like the French film Savage Nights (about living with AIDS), but far better crafted, Leaving Las Vegas has no taboos. It doesn't moralize about its characters. Mike Figgis (Internal Affairs) has filmed an amazing dual character study. Like great poetry where each verse strives for new highs and lows, Leaving Las Vegas draws its audience along a rarely-traveled path whose scope can only be fully appreciated in the silence of the aftermath.

Leaving Las Vegas (United States, 1995)

Director: Mike Figgis
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Screenplay: Mike Figgis based on the novel by John O'Brien
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Music: Mike Figgis
U.S. Distributor: United Artists
Run Time: 1:52
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1