Saturday, October 15, 2011

"You can never, never ask me to stop drinking."

Film: Leaving Las Vegas
Year: 1995
Writter/Director: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Richard Lewis, Steven Weber, Kim Adams, Emily Procter, Valeria Golino.
Running time: 111 min.

Believe it or not, Nicolas Cage used to star in good movies, and he used to be a good actor. Before he had been reduced to the world of witch seasoning, driving angry and riding ghosts, he starred in a little, low budget film called Leaving Las Vegas, which he won an Oscar for. He played Ben Sanderson, a man recently divorced from his wife and has found little reason to live as his job has tanked. So he goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. While he's on his suicide mission, he meets prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue), and the two spend some time together. The basis of their relationship is that Ben shall never ask Sera to give up her prostitution and Sera shall never ask Ben to give up his drinking. This, of course, makes their relationship doomed, as both of them are living such dangerous lives and damaging themselves to the point of no return.

It's this relationship, and the believable acting from Cage and Shue, that sets this movie aside from the many others about addiction. First of all, because both Ben and Sera just want to carry on their lives just as they were even while they're together, there is none of that mushy "I will beat this" kind of stuff happening. We all know just how doomed their relationship is, but we still kind of root for them, especially for Sera as she sees Ben fade away and she wants to do something but she knows she can't do anything for him. As the film progresses, the frustration with the relationship grows, particularly in Sera because she really does act as a guardian angel for Ben, even though he's usually too drunk to realise it. Leaving Las Vegas portrays the ultimate war: a war between life and death, the will to live and the will to die, what is right and what it wrong, and obeying the rules that the one you love has set for you. This war is so beautifully done, and it's hard not to feel every ounce of pain that either Sera or Ben are going through.

Despite the fact that this film is probably as depressing as they come (but somehow not quite as depressing as Requiem for a Dream...glory be the day when I find a movie as depressing as that one), it is very well written and there's almost a sense of energy put toward the writing. There are some lines which are quite clever and quick-fire, but of course, this only comes with Ben's varying degrees of conciousness. Mike Figgis managed to write and direct this movie, adapting it from John O'Brien's novel which, according to his father, was his suicide note, as he committed suicide two weeks after finding out his book was to be made into a film. Figgis made the movie on a very tight budget, which is not always ideal whilst shooting in Las Vegas; the fact that Figgis and his crew had to literally bend over backwards to get their vital shots in and around Las Vegas makes everything more realistic, and definitely not as glossy as it would appear in films like The Hangover. The only thing I can criticize about this movie is that it has not really aged that well. The story is timeless, but the way it was made in so 1995, with it's odd slow-motion, slightly off editing work and really bad aerial shots of Vegas. But I do understand that's just the way films were the year the world was blessed with my arrival.

While the slightly off-target direction and the fact that some of the material in the movie makes for some really uncomfortable watching, it's hard to take your eyes off the performances by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue. Now, I'll always know Shue as the girl who became Marty McFly's girlfriend in the second and third Back to the Future's. But here, she is completely different from that (obviously), and she turns the clich├ęd 'whore with a heart of gold' character into a fascinating, self-destructive woman. Her character, and performance, completes the emotional side to this movie, but the entire movie belongs to Nicolas Cage. You see, if this movie was made now, he probably would have made an absolute mess of his alcoholic character, because, let's be honest, he always seems like he is drunk in most of his films. Here, he was playing an alcoholic; he would have gone completely nuts. But instead, he delivers a very realistic portrayal of an alcoholic, through his speech patterns and his body movement, which are all perfectly researched and applied. To be honest, he absolutely blew me away. Especially because there's one moment where his character gets a bee in his bonnet over something, and Cage is given the chance to exhibit his trademark 'Cage Rage' and go absolutely wild beyond all recognition. But he doesn't go all that wild, so he's still believable. Which made me wonder whether that was really Cage on screen. This whole movie made me wonder whether that was really Cage on screen. So, I must put forward this question, just for you, Nic: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

What I got:


  1. Ooh, I *hated* this back in the day (I saw it when it was new). I've never cared for films about alcoholics at the best of times, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. From memory there's a scene where she buys him a hip flask, which is obviously a sign that she is indeed not going to do anything to stop him drinking, and I walked out of the cinema at that point.

  2. *Never* heard of this film... Nicolas Cage won an Oscar?!
    Not that I don't like him, I've seen him in good films, indeed. Actually, I like him.

  3. Cage deserved this Oscar and the whole film deserved Best Picture as well because it really tugged at my heart-strings without even meaning to. Great film. Great review.

  4. My knee-jerk reaction to this for a long time was saying I didn't like it, even though I didn't NOT like it, I was just annoyed that Cage won the Oscar over Sean Penn's best performance. It's a fairly good film, I don't think Cage is exception (sue me, I think his best work is in Face/Off) but he's good. She's the real standout to me.

  5. Oh, how I loved this. Saw it for the second time a few weeks ago and just fell in love with it. It's so real, so beautiful, so amazingly truthful. Cage and Shue are just fantastic, and this is easily one of the best movies of the mid-90s. I don't care what anyone else says, I love it, and incidentally, I strangely found it a lot more depressing than REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. I recommend seeing another of director Mike Figgis' films, TIMECODE, which consists of four unedited 90-minute single takes all played simultaneously on a screen divided into four sections. It's great, but... it's not LEAVING LAS VEGAS, that's for sure. For my money, this is one of the best films to deal with both alcoholism and suicide, the best since Louis Malle's THE FIRE WITHIN.

  6. I haven't seen this one but yes Nic Cage used to be a good actor and hopefully he'll return to acting one day. He was good in Adaptation as well, such a courageous performance. I even liked him in action flicks like Face/Off and Con Air, but his recent movies are so dismal, I stopped watching anything he's in since Ghost Rider, ugh!

  7. James - I'll admit, that part really angered me, but then I realised that it was kinda vital to the story. It's not an easy film to watch!

    Mette - Nicolas Cage won an Oscar! He used to be in some really good films. But now, with films like Drive Angry and Season of the Witch, he's not really at his best...

    Dan - I totally agree!

    Andrew - I have yet to see Face/Off. People always go on about how good he was in that film!

    Tyler - I didn't find it as depressing as Requiem for a Dream, mainly coz that film hit me like a train, and nothing has been able to compare with it since. I do like addiction movies though.

    Ruth - I haven't seen Adaption, but I really need to. He was good in Con Air! I've been strangely watching all of his movies that he's been making recently, and yes, they are pretty bad. Apart from Kick-Ass. I hope he does return to acting some day!


You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.


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