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by Mike Figgis (Director)
MGM DVD, 1995
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 26th 2006

Leaving Las Vegas

Nicolas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic screenwriter who drinks himself to death.  The movie starts with his old friends rejecting Ben and his boss firing him.  We find that he is divorced and does not see his child.  He goes to his house and burns everything that ever meant anything to him.  He drinks and drinks.  Finally, he sets off to Las Vegas, knowing that it will be his last trip.  There he meets a prostitute called Sera (Elisabeth Shue) with a violent and unstable pimp.  Ben and Sera have a doomed romance. 

I remember seeing Leaving Las Vegas when it was originally released; it was depressing then, and I was not really looking forward to seeing it again.  On seeing it this second time, I found the plot is every bit as unhappy as I recalled, but what stands out is the energy and subtlety of Cage's performance.  Too often in his career, Cage plays a hoodlum or action hero, and he tends to be one-dimensional in those roles.  Here he is more interesting, both charming and utterly self-destructive.  He is an alcoholic and he has no intention of being anything else.  Having accepted who he is, he can relax and just get on the job of drinking until his body expires.  He's a sad and pathetic figure, and his loss of a will to live despite having found love with Sera is heartbreaking. 

There are well over a hundred comments on Amazon.com about this film, and it is clear that most people either love or hate it.  Many of those who hated the movie criticize it for being unrealistic about alcoholism, for the characters being unbelievable, or for making the relationship into a clichéd love story.  It is certainly not a typical story of alcoholism, and few alcoholics rush to their own death with such determination as Ben' character.  The character of a prostitute with a heart of gold is maybe a rather familiar one -- we have seen her in Pretty Woman, for example.  However, this is a very different sort of film from most Hollywood productions.  Figgis' and Cage together combine to make Ben's alcoholism appalling, and one of the classic portrayals of drunks at the movies.  Cage's performance is gripping and even breathtaking.  Make no mistake: Ben is misogynist, hateful, a failure in every aspect of his life, crude, and incapable of sustaining a relationship with anyone else.  While he maintains a sense of humor and occasionally a disarming humility, he is never romanticized.  Shue's performance as Sera is also remarkable, and she makes it possible to understand how she might be able to relate to Ben.  As a prostitute, she cannot find a good relationship with a man, and men use her all the time, so Ben's difference from other men is attractive to her. 

Leaving Las Vegas is a difficult seedy film to watch, and it isn't for everyone, but it stands the test of time well.  The lounge jazz and rhythm and blues sound track sets the atmosphere perfectly.

 

 

© 2006 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.