Leaving Las Vegas (1995)
Written & Directed by Mike Figgis
Leaving Las Vegas was based on a novel of the same name written by John O’Brien. O’Brien moved to Los Angeles in the early 1980s with dreams of becoming a screenwriter. By 1992, his marriage had fallen apart, and he had become severely depressed. He was still writing though, even using a connection through his ex-wife to pen an episode of Nickelodeon’s Rugrats, which was subsequently edited to the point of being unrecognizable. O’Brien published his first novel in 1990, Leaving Las Vegas, which was sold to become a film in 1994. Within weeks of the deal, O’Brien died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was 33 years old. He died alone in his apartment.
Leaving Las Vegas is the story of screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), who has allowed his alcoholism to torpedo his entire personal and professional lives. His wife left him and took their son, all his connections in the industry are pretending they don’t know him, and he’s just been fired from his studio gig being given a generous severance and words of advice from a concerned boss. Ben decides that life isn’t worth living and so he will move to Las Vegas where the liquor flows 24/7, get a motel room for a month, and drink himself to death. He happens to meet Sera (Elizabeth Shue), a sex worker in Vegas who is under the thumb of a Polish pimp. The pimp’s debts catch up to him, and he lets Sera go before they try to harm her.
With her only human connection severed, Sera takes pit in the pathetic Ben, who pays her for the evening, unable to perform sexually but merely wanting companionship. She chooses to accept what Ben is doing to himself in exchange for having him move in with her so she can keep him out of trouble and have his warm, non-judgmental presence. These two people have no one and are coming to a point in life where the concept of the future seems laughably absurd. In each other, they find a sort of twisted but genuine love, complete acceptance of the other without demands of change to fit a preconception.
Leaving Las Vegas is one of the bleakest mainstream films I’ve ever seen, and there’s no way you could tell this story without that tone. Audiences are so conditioned by most wide release pictures that we expect Sera to give Ben a reason to stop drinking and keep living. Or we think she’ll give up sex work and get married and live happily ever after. That’s not this movie, and it would be dishonest to twist the story in that direction. I don’t think the film presents alcoholism in an entirely realistic manner, and doing so would cascade the story deeper into the hellish nightmare it already is. Director Mike Figgis tries to find organic moments of humor without being cloying and manipulative. The final scene of the movie doesn’t hold anything back and will shatter your heart without ever playing the moment as maudlin.
The story feels like cliche material: the down on his luck drunk and the hooker with a heart of gold. What elevates them are the performances of Nicolas Cage and especially Elizabeth Shue. I almost see her as the protagonist of the story, with Ben being a supporting figure. She is the one who still has to live when the screen goes black, she’s the character whose therapy sessions we get snippets of. Because of her line of work, she’s had to learn to withhold personal judgment while being used. Sera isn’t helpless, though, she talks about the power of providing people with their fantasies and how they worship her for a brief moment with awe. With Ben, she withholds judgment but receives love instead of being expected to give all of herself to him.
Leaving Las Vegas is a sometimes obnoxious, and at other contemplative, American tragedy. The setting Las Vegas brings up all sorts of associations with excess and destructive consumption. It’s a city that, by all rights, shouldn’t exist, plopped down in the middle of the desert with humanity usurping nature to pump water and electricity into the place. Vegas is an act of capitalist defiance against nature. So too is Ben’s decision to destroy himself, going against everything that’s drilled into people as they grow up, being told to pursue their dreams. But what if that dream doesn’t just not come true but combusts in your face, knocking out all the supports below? The film isn’t encouraging people to go out and mimic Ben, but the filmmaker, like Sera, never passes judgment on him. This is who Ben is, this is the choice he has made, he never asks for your permission or forgiveness, Ben is paying his own way, but he demands his life end by his own hands, that the universe at least gives him that.