After his alcoholism costs him his Hollywood screenwriting job, family and friends, Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) decides he’s going to Las Vegas with one goal in mind: drink himself to death. While driving drunk down the Vegas strip one night, he almost hits a woman at a crosswalk, Sera (Elisabeth Shue). Sera’s a prostitute working for the abusive Latvian pimp Yuri Butso (Julian Sands).
As luck would have it, Ben runs into Sera again the next day and offers her $500 to, oddly enough, not have sex but stay the night to talk. From there, a relationship develops, one doomed from the start as Sera promises to never ask Ben to stop drinking, so long as he never criticizes her occupation.
Don’t be fooled by the marketing trailer United Artists released, which kinda makes the film appear more like a romantic comedy. Leaving Las Vegas is by no means lighthearted, but a bittersweet tragedy of two people that grow to love each other in spite of the fact that they’re not quite destined for a happy ending. At the heart of it all, are two career performances from Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue, both never better than they are right here.
Based on John O’Brien’s (who sadly committed suicide after learning his book was being adapted for a film) semi-autobiographical novel, Leaving Las Vegas is an uncompromising look at desperation and dependency. Filmed on a limited budget with additional permitting problems, writer/director Mike Figgis chose to shoot this film with 16 mm (35 mm is most commonly used for mainstream film) and shot most of the Vegas strip scenes in one take (to avoid dealing with the police). The single takes, however, ended up giving the film a more genuine and natural feel.
Figgis has taken two character tropes, the drunk and hooker with a heart of gold, and fleshed them out in ways we don’t see often enough. Pretty Woman, this isn’t. While Figgis never condemns these characters himself, we still see the dark side of each of their conditions. Both are prisoners to their own way of life. Ben’s an alcoholic who’s given up on life. Sera’s a hooker, who’s often the victim of abuse from her pimp and even her customers, but realizes that unfortunately comes with the territory at times. The difference between the two, though, is that Ben – who refers to Sera as his angel – is never fully able to see Sera clearly, being that he’s an alcoholic. Sera sees Ben perfectly clear, and still chooses to be with him. This, despite Ben adamantly telling her she will never be able to get him to stop drinking.
“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.”, says Sera.
While it’s not an extensive backstory into Sanderson’s life, the opening prologue to the film provides some insight into the events that take Ben up to Las Vegas. Once a movie executive with a wife and kids, Ben’s demons cause him to lose it all. We don’t know how and why his family left him. Thankfully, Figgis spares us the obligatory explanation of what exactly happened. We don’t need to know every detail to understand the gravity of the situation. Ben sums it up for us.
“I’m not sure if I lost my family because of my drinking, or if I’m drinking because I lost my family.”
I’ve been critical of Nicolas Cage before. Over-the-top hysterical performances aside, at this point, I’m convinced he’s never met a script he didn’t like. Make no mistake, though. Cage is fantastic actor in the right film and this film, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar, proves it. Yes, he’s also done great work in Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Peggy Sue Got Married, Bringing Out the Dead, Adaptation and Matchstick Men, but even if those films never existed, it still wouldn’t matter how many Ghost Rider, Stolen, The Wicker Man, Bangkok Dangerous or Season of the Witch movies he spews out. Leaving Las Vegas is proof enough to show you how great of an actor he is.
Playing drunks onscreen are a lot more challenging than what some might expect. It’s one thing if your acting out a drunk scene in a comedy. In that instance, your intention is laughs so you’re given a bit more liberty to play it up a bit. Here, in Cage’s case, it’s an entirely different story playing a self-destructive alcoholic. Known to be a bit of a method actor, Cage researched for the role by binge drinking for two weeks and having a friend videotape him so he could study his drunk speech. He also visited hospitalized career alcoholics (Shue also interviewed Vegas prostitutes). The research clearly pays off. The speech, shakes, trembling, ticks – Cage has never come off more authentic onscreen than he does here. Sanderson never overtly condemns himself, but still knows full well his situation (in his firing scene during the introductory scene, he refers to his severance pay as “too generous”). He’s heartbreaking without ever being maudlin or manipulative. We all have come to know of Cage’s manic acting style quite well. Leaving Las Vegas shows that when he applies it in moderation, brilliance can come from it.
In the best role of her career, Elisabeth Shue is that hooker with a heart of gold. Such a cliche character trope can be forgiven here considering her character’s story is never sugarcoated, even in the slightest. We see the abuse she receives from her pimp (a small yet solid supporting turn from Julian Sands). Later on, she is bullied and raped by three young customers, the latter scene proving to be the most poignant. Prior to that moment, she’s reached her breaking point with Ben’s behavior and tells him to leave. It’s when it’s all said and done, after she’s been taken advantage by three punk college kids and it looks like Ben’s finally gone that she realizes how much she needs Ben just as much as he needs her.
It’s a shame that Shue’s career didn’t take off like it could’ve following such a superb performance. That’s not to say her career was going nowhere beforehand. She was in The Karate Kid and Back to the Future Parts II and III, after all. Yet, this is really the one standout lead performance from her that truly showcased how far her talent could take her, and it’s rather disappointing that it never really got any better or as good for her following this film.
At some point within the film, you may start to question how a drunk like Ben can come across a hooker as attractive and caring as Sera. Once you look past that minor contrivance you see how much sense it still makes that they end up together. At the end of the day, they’re two damaged souls, with no one else to turn to, depending on each other’s devotion.
Leaving Las Vegas may have a thin narrative, but the heartbreaking beauty and depth within this film are the characters of Ben and Sera, magnificently portrayed by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Smoothly scored by Mike Figgis and shot by Declan Quinn in ways that capture both the glam and underbelly of Las Vegas, Leaving Las Vegas is grim and downbeat, yet never depressing, instead showing us two lonely and desperate individuals who gradually come to share an unconditional love for each other.