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Monday, December 13, 2010

Ebert's Greats #7: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

* * * *

Director: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

If it isn't the most depressing movie ever (one of Ingmar Bergman's films may lay claim to that title), Leaving Las Vegas has got to be, at the very least, in the top 5. It's so unrelentingly grim that, as well-made as it is, you really only want to see it once because it's such a harrowing experience. Nicolas Cage's ratio of good films to mindless movies/weird, performance art-like crap is perhaps a bit disproportionate, but when he brings it, he really hits it out of the park.

Leaving Las Vegas is a story of alcoholism that begins at rock bottom and then just keeps burrowing further down. Cage stars as Ben Sanderson, a screenwriter whose drinking has cost him everything. With nothing left to lose, he embarks on a trip to Las Vegas, where he intends to finally drink himself into his grave. During his stay he begins a relationship with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute whose own life is just as dark, but in different ways.

Ben and Sera make an agreement for how to live together - he agrees not to judge her for her work; she agrees not to try to stop his drinking - and for a time, they co-exist peacefully. However, Sera's inability to simply sit there and watch him die slowly overrides that agreement, which prompts Ben to lash out by bringing another prostitute home. Sera throws him out but, when Ben later calls her, she ultimately goes to him to bear witness to his sad final moments.

The success of the film depends on a couple of things. First and foremost it depends on Cage and his ability to play the character rather than the character's addiction. Ben is an alcoholic but that is neither the beginning nor the end of his character. He's a man filled with loneliness and almost incomprehensible self-loathing and there are glimmers throughout the film of the man he once was before his demons took over. There are many moments which I guess you might qualify as "showy," scenes in which Cage must highlight the effects of the ways that Ben has been punishing his body, but I don't think he ever overplays it or hits a false note. This is a brilliant performance of a man imploding from the inside out and it's easily one of the most compelling performances of the last twenty years.

But Cage is only half the story and the other half belongs to Shue, whose performance is just as a vital in terms of making Leaving Las Vegas work. The audience must believe that she would involve herself with this deeply troubled man, that she would sign up to sit by him while he kills himself. Sera is a woman with darkness of her own, which the film establishes early on through scenes with her pimp (Julian Sands), who abuses her but also saves her by letting her go so that the mobsters who are after him don't also go after her. In her relationship with Ben she experiences, perhaps for the first time, a degree of control and in acting as a caretaker to Ben, she is not just giving something but getting something as well. Shue's performance is perhaps quieter than Cage's, but it is nevertheless its equal. Unlike Cage, Shue did not win an Oscar for this performance (and it's hard to get too broken up about that since it went to Susan Sarandon for Dead Man Walking), but she brings just as much to the table as he does and deserves as much credit.

The stripped down look of the film is borne of budgetary necessity, but it also perfectly captures the spirit of the story. Leaving Las Vegas has a down to the bone kind of production that complements the characters and their milieu. It's gritty and occasionally ugly but it works. It's authentic and the result is just as effective and emotionally involving today as it was 15 years ago.


The Taxi Driver said...

Ya this is a really great movie but I've always thought of it as more sad than depressing (I'd like to think there is a difference). William Goldman once wrote that he'll never vote, come Oscar time, for anyone playing a drunk or a retard because they are the easiest roles to play but I think Cage is one of the few who actually makes something complex and compelling out of the drunk role. Good review.

Ryan McNeil said...

the first time i watched this film was the night before St. Patrick's Day one year. Suffice it to say, I didn't really feel like going drinking the next night.

Great review - glad you enjoyed this unforgettable, yet wholly depressing gem.

Norma Desmond said...

@Mike Lippert: Agreed about Cage. He has plenty of chances to overact, but he never does.

@Mad Hatter: That is some bad timing - like watching Carrie the day before the prom.