Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Director: Mike Figgis
Writer: Mike Figgis; Leaving Las Vegas by John O'Brien
Cinematographer: Declan Quinn
Producer: Lila Cazès and Annie Stewart
by Jon Cvack
For some reason alcoholism has failed to get much attention as of late, with Flight (2012) being the last major film to explore its consequences. There’s an HBO documentary “Risky Drinking” (2016) which explores the dangers of alcoholism, following four or five individuals who attempt to keep afloat as the disease slowly consumes them; from a mid-twenties working woman, who while functional during the day, anticipates the weekends where she’ll pound shooters throughout the night, often resulting in embarrassing feuds which end in emotional breakdowns, before she wakes up the next day, recovers, and does it all over again. Another man lives in the Caribbean, having his high school son head to the liquor store each morning to buy him a fifth which will be finished by early evening before he heads to the bar. Another man attempts to maintain a job where he fails to function unless he polishes off a few tall boy cans in his car before heading into work; shaking uncontrollably if he tries otherwise.
The science states we start to grow tired after a certain threshold of drinking; which is essentially our body's way of saying we’ve had enough. Most casual drinkers in their late twenties and early thirties are familiar with this threshold when heading out for the rare night of bar hopping or house party - you start to get tired, but being around your closest friends, you fight through it, and fast forward to closing time, you get to anticipate a gnarly hangover the next day. Many of us know individuals who never seem to have the limit; as once they start they’re unable to stop until they literally cannot stand or speak. Alcoholics are either missing or fight through this threshold, disregarding what their bodies say in order to smother themselves in booze; quickly transitioning from a jovial and fun loving person and into a slurred and aggressive mess. It’s this latter stage that the HBO documentary best captures as we watch as the alcoholics remain full awake, except speaking through nearly inaudible slurs; where you can smell the booze from the screen.
I haven’t seen Leaving Las Vegas since first getting into film. I remember little beyond it being a fairly depressing film with a wonderful performance from both Nicolas Cage (who’d win an Oscar) and Elisabeth Shue (who was nominated); the type of film where I was always interested in revisiting but never found myself in the mood. However, what I remembered as a cynical drama shifted into essentially the structure of any average romance; man meets girl, girl rejects him, the two then fall in love, they begin to fight, and the two struggle to maintain their relationship.
The story involves a Hollywood screenwriter and severe alcoholic Ben Sanderson (Cage) whose wife left him with the kid, leaving him to further turn toward booze. We meet him at a restaurant where his two film producer colleagues have taken a couple of attractive actresses out. Ben’s face is flushed red, his suit wrinkled, and like any alcoholic, the booze gives him an ephemeral feeling of confidence and empowerment. Ben bums some money and the next day the studio head lets him go, giving Ben a generous severance which he decides to take to Vegas in order to drink himself to death and maybe do a bit of gambling along the way.
He soon meets the prostitute Sera (Shue) who brushes him off at first; still living with her aggressive pimp Yuri Butsov (Julian Sands), who soon abandons her when mobsters track him down.. Sera meets Ben yet again and comes around and the two enter into a passionate love affair, though without the sex, as Ben’s alcoholism has rendered him impotent. Sera invites Ben to stay with her and Ben accepts under the condition that she can never stop his drinking. Desperate for anybody, she agrees and aside from Sera is working, the two are inseparable.
There are few films that capture loneliness the way this film does; an idea which the older I get seems all the more terrifying. In the last two weeks, two people I went to high school with have died from cancer. Their children are all under the age of four, and their wives are now left in a position that I truly can’t imagine overcoming, let alone the kids who’ll remember little about their father.
Adulthood seems to function close to the brink of complete loneliness. I think how fortunate I am to have found someone I can spend my life with, as like most, I find myself preferring to stay inside 90% of the year, and unlike most, preferring to write alone in my room most nights, I’m sure even sure the few I’d find by online dating would deal with that fact, and not wanting to give it up, I would probably opt to be alone. And in a town that’s associated with the antithesis of loneliness (like Las Vegas), it’s this alternative that makes it hard. We’re all so close to being alone. It’s an initially depressing idea, until it empowers you to appreciate the people you do have in your life. And for those who have no one, my heart aches, as it seems you then have to find alternatives to act as companions - animals, jobs, booze, or worse.
It’s never stated if Ben’s wife and kid specifically left him, or if they might have died. I suspect the latter, as it seems his slow suicide would otherwise be too selfish if the child was still alive. His companion is booze, and what makes the choice so interesting is the complete lack of guilt. It’s as though there are only moments that impact Ben’s conscience, but by knowing that the alternative is to give it up, and live a far more painful life, he knows he can’t give in.
Sera’s story is a bit more tragic, as we’re never entirely sure what led her to prostitution; though poverty seems the likeliest. In one scene, after her landlady (in a minor role played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf) catches her on the job, she kicks Sera out, and with hardly any money at all, she’s left on the street; plain and simple, with nothing to do but use her body to try and scrape enough together to find another place. There seems no grander mission. Schue is so beautiful, elegant, and charming, and therefore capable of shelter with relative ease, it seems that - like Ben - there was no other choice. She enjoyed the thrill and control, but by never specifying the motive, I was left wondering what a different choice would have done; if the woman was a bit more disheveled, more forced into the position than opting in. It’s an answer only the book could provide.
Abiding by a strict tragic romantic structure, we follow the two as they attempt to exist and live with one another, flirting with love, desire, and indifference. We watch as Elisabeth keeps trying to seduce Ben, each attempt increasingly more sexy, culminating in a beautiful scene when the two get drunk outside at the pool in Palm Springs; these scenes often playing through some of the best romantic jazz scores I’ve ever heard (most written by Sting, strange enough - and I’m still left wondering if he’s doing the singing).
There’s no way to square the circle as to why Shue loves Ben, especially after one scene when he brings a woman back home from the casino who Elisabeth catches him half naked in bed with after she spent the night working. The irony fades away, and like any great romance, we simply get the scene of the girl catching the guy with another woman, and all the heartache great performances can reflect. Perhaps this savior complex connects to her purpose, in which she sees her work as providing comfort to others; and knowing Ben is completing a long suicide, she hopes to help him all along the way.
Things peak when Elisabeth finds Ben in another seedy motel, motionless on the bed, struggling to breath, and still pulling swigs. Forgiving Ben once again, Elisabeth succeeds in seducing him. They finally have sex and he passes away moments after finishing and we cut to Elisabeth talking to a therapist. I was left wondering if these scenes were cut in to provide explanation, or whether they’re part of the novel; as they seem the only way to prevent the story from spiraling into further cynicism. Either way, as much as I found the film a downer, the scene played as the perfect conclusion. Like any great romance, the lovers ended up in each other’s arms, no matter the actual conclusion.
Sting’s score compliments the film’s celebration of tiny beautiful moments. Against a world in which awful things happen to people and so few seem to care, it demonstrates the need to appreciate any and all moments of joy and pleasure. The film shows that appreciating the tiniest moments are imperative, and very often, the most fulfilling. If two such characters could find happiness in each other, think how easy it is for us to do the same in our own day to day existence.
BELOW: A well deserved statue
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