'Leaving Las Vegas' (1995) - Movie Review
The first time we see Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), he is playfully dancing in a supermarket, literally filling his shopping cart with different bottles of different types of alcohol. The end of that aisle is full of bottled water, but just when we think Ben will add something to really hydrate himself (as if that would really minimize the deranged amount of alcohol he already has), Ben reaches out to grab the last alcohol bottle next to the water section.
It's Mike Figgis's way of introducing us to his main character with a simple choreography. Ben doesn't have a "drinking problem", at this point, drinking completely governs his life to bizarre levels.
Of course, Ben's life is hell. His wife has abandoned him. His friends give him money in exchange for him disappearing from their lives. His career as a Hollywood screenwriter is not only stagnant, but he has just been fired for good.
Ben then decides to go to Las Vegas to do the only thing he has done very well in recent years: Drink. Drink to death. Ben just wants to constantly evade his reality and by knowing that his body won't resist the massive alcohol consumption, he has no other choice but to accept the agonizing and long suicide. Rehabilitation, at this point, is just impossible. There's no one there for him.
In the Sin City of Nevada, Ben almost hits a beautiful prostitute with his car. The prostitute, named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) has left him delighted. The next day, Ben pays her $500 for an hour in his hotel room.
But Ben and Sera don't have sex. They just enjoy each other's company, talking and sleeping together all night. Both are delighted with the experience and begin to develop an unusual relationship.
The core of Leaving Las Vegas is precisely that loving relationship between Ben and Sera. Sera, a beautiful prostitute but with obvious self-esteem issues and a phobia of loneliness, is delighted with the fact that Ben is apparently in love with her, without paid sex being the reason for their interaction. Ben, a suicidal alcoholic, loves having a beautiful, caring woman by his side.
It remains for the viewer to judge whether both are really helping each other or whether they are rather enabling each other. Ben and Sera come to have a weird but apparently functional social contract: Ben will live with Sera, help her pay some things but Sera should never ask him to stop drinking. Ben, in return, should never judge Sera's profession.
Both then begin to generate positive feelings towards each other. They both even say they love each other. But how genuine are the loving words of an alcoholic and a prostitute? Can that dynamic really be called love? Will Sera really know the man that Ben was? If the answer is positive, is Ben's personality then reduced to being a suicidal alcoholic?
Leaving Las Vegas is very careful when it comes to showing the relationship. Both damaged characters seemed to really have no bad intentions. But perhaps their relationship is more a dependency than something genuine. A desperate attempt to fill a huge emotional void. The respected prostitute and the non-judged alcoholic.
The questions can go even deeper. How different is their relationship from the ones considered "normal"? Who are we to rule what is genuine or not? Both seem to really improve the life of the other, even when the improvement is in a context of almost complete self-destruction.
That's how powerful the story is. And even if it's a redundancy to say, this movie would be nothing without Elizabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage. Both are fantastic in their roles.
But Cage's case is interesting. In the last 15 years, "The Cage" has become a walking meme, starring projects considered "inferior" and borderline pulpy, where his passion and manic energy almost overreacted is a reason for ridicule and cult. Seeing him in retrospect, self-destructing in his most "respected" role, for which he even won an Oscar, is revealing. Cage uses alcohol as literal fuel for his unhinged interpretation. It's amazing.
What's Your Rating For Leaving Las Vegas
Leaving Las Vegas is not a sexy movie at all. Even with both actors perhaps at the ideal peak of their physicality and maturity, sex is something constantly obstructed.
Makes sense. A prostitute, accustomed to the mechanical act of the in-out, values another type of connection. And although Sera never pressures Ben, she does seek to consummate the sexual act several times. Intelligently, she mixes alcohol with her naked body at one point to tempt him. Unfortunately, Ben's alcoholic awkwardness breaks the moment.
When they finally manage to sexually consummate their relationship, they do so in what is perhaps the most depressing sexual scene ever performed in a movie. A final release. The last contact with the best thing life has to offer before giving up for it completely. Ben has years of self-exclusion from any healthy social relationship, but just before leaving definitely, he gets a glimpse of bittersweet intimacy.
That damn twisted decadent love story is the reason why Leaving Las Vegas deserves to be seen.
Title: Leaving Las Vegas
Release Year: 1995
Director(s): Mike Figgis
Actors: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue a.o.
© 2019 Sam Shepards