Tuesday, October 22, 2013

From My Collection: Leaving Las Vegas Movie Review

To understand a little about the kind of person I was in high school, I probably need only tell you that a movie I and my friends wanted to see was Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis’s film about an alcoholic who decides to drink himself to death and strikes up an odd relationship with a prostitute. And believe me when I tell you it had nothing to do with seeing Elisabeth Shue’s (star of childhood favorite Adventures in Babysitting) breasts. A friend and I went to see it because it had challenging subject matter, because it was a reprieve from the usual populist fare. If I was like that at 17, then imagine how my taste runs today.


I think this is the first time I’ve seen Leaving Las Vegas since that time in 1995. It still holds up as a serious emotional wallop of a movie. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin, a drunk whose life is coming apart at the seams already when we meet him. He hounds a friend for a few bucks in a fancy L.A. restaurant. He’s let go from his job. He burns or trashes all his possessions, including a photograph of a wife and son, a fleeting glimpse of Ben’s past that is never accompanied by explanation. Then he moves to Vegas, sells his car, and meets Sera (Shue) whom he tells of his plan to kill himself by slowly poisoning his body. It ought to take three to four weeks, he figures.

Ben and Sera have an immediate and inexplicable attraction to one another – or at least she to him. Ben seems more in need of a little bit of human companionship in his final weeks. She’s a prostitute. He’s a drunk. The two of them wear these titles as if they’re immutable facts of their lives. He tells her, after she asks him to stay at her place, that she can never ask him to stop. And she gets this because she knows he can’t ask her to stop turning tricks. Although maybe she needs someone to care enough to ask that of her, and maybe that’s why she eventually asks him to see a doctor.

Figgis wrote the screenplay based on the novel by John O’Brien, with which I have no familiarity. We know Ben lost his wife and son, presumably through divorce resulting from his alcoholism, and a rage in the middle of a casino from which he’s dragged away while screaming, “He’s my son,” suggests perhaps he lost custody. All we know about Sera is that she’s been under the thumb of an abusive pimp (Julian Sands) until he’s dispatched by some gangsters to whom he owe money. In any other film it might be a major fault that the characters have so little back story, but there’s a magnetism in Cage’s and Shue’s performances and in Figgis’s screenplay that makes it better that we know so little about Ben and Sera outside the actual events taking place on screen. It forces the viewer to directly confront their behaviors and actions without consideration for where they’ve been. The effect is a spare, yet highly effective, film.

As for the way Figgis directs the film, I was struck more this time by the low-budget style, handheld camera, and naturalism to so many of the scenes. Eighteen years ago I was exclusively focused on the story. I’m amazed at how stylized the direction is especially considering this film garnered serious popular attention. Granted, in the mid-90s there were lots of indie films being made by hot auteurs each with their own particular style, but Leaving Las Vegas was hot on 16mm, without permits for the scenes on the Vegas Strip (meaning they were often done in a single take, on the fly, with no opportunity for redubbing or looping the dialogue later), and features lots of slow motion and often dreamlike sequences that could come straight out of David Lynch. Figgis didn’t go in for easy melodrama, although the subject matter certainly is melodramatic. He made the movie the way he wanted. He made it a little rough around the edges, but entirely professional in appearance, and coaxed two of the best acting performances of the decade out of two of the least likely candidates for the title. Cage has gone on to some other very good performances, but has mostly spawned legions of cult followers and super-cuts of his explosive acting. Shue made her way into a Woody Allen film shortly after, but then virtually disappeared from Hollywood movies.

Now let me spoil it for you: Leaving Las Vegas is as stark and unforgiving a picture of a downward spiral as the movies have ever produced. There is no sunny ending coming. There won’t be any trips to rehab or promises to quit. There’s just Ben and his drink. And more drink and the occasional stumble and disapproving stares from onlookers. Sera herself doesn’t offer too many bright spots in her future except that she’s no longer controlled by anyone. But that in itself leaves her vulnerable to attack by a group of college boys who think prostitutes are trash they can mistreat and leave broken on the side of the road. Does it get much more depressing than a film that features a scene of anal gang rape that may not even be the lowest moment in the story? I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so emotionally drained at the end of a movie. Of course, I was much younger and more impressionable when I first saw it. I recall near deafening silence in the theater as the credits rolled, but then my friend and I overheard a man remark to his companion, “This may be totally wrong, but I could really use a drink.” You may want to get two ready.

Side Note: I was amazed at how many recognizable faces (many of whom were nearly unknown at the time) appear in minor roles. Shawnee Smith as a young woman in a bar; Valeria Golino as someone Ben hits on in a bar; the recently passed Ed Lauter as a gangster; Danny Huston as a bartender; Richard Lewis and Steven Weber (both of whom were well known then) as associates of Ben; Emily Procter; French Stewart; R. Lee Ermey; Laurie Metcalf.

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