Wednesday 22 March 2023

Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Director: Mike Figgis
Writer: Mike Figgis, based on the novel by John O’Brien
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth Shue and Julien Sands

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s only been three years and six movies but Cage is back in Vegas. Things are different this time. He lost a girl in Honeymoon in Vegas and had to scramble to win her back. Here, he has nobody in the world when he arrives, with the plan of literally drinking himself to death, but he finds one anyway, in a hooker called Sera. I should quickly add that, whatever that sounds like, this is not a cutesy romcom.

Cage is Ben Sanderson and, between bottles, he’s a Hollywood screenwriter. We don’t know if he’s good at it or not but he’s very good at being drunk. He’s lost his wife and he can’t remember if she left because he drinks or if he drinks because she left. He’s a complete wreck.

By the time he loses his job, fifteen minutes into the picture, the opening credits show up and we follow Ben to Vegas. At this point, we have no idea why he’s a drunk and we don’t learn anything else in the hour and a half still to come. He burned everything before leaving. There’s nothing to tie him back to his former life and, if there is, then the drink will drown it all out.

From the very beginning, this is a peach of a performance from Cage. I’m hardly the biggest fan of the Academy Awards and know just how much politics goes into them, but he deserved his Oscar win. What makes this film so worthy is that it isn’t just him delivering a stunner of a performance; Elizabeth Shue matches him. I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed the movie, because it’s really not an enjoyable film, but I thoroughly appreciated it.

It’s a loose film, one that eschews plot for an odd character study. We know more about the futures of the two lead characters than we do their pasts, yet we find sympathy for both in a thoroughly honest present. We learn to know them surprisingly well, given that we have few facts to unleash about either.

That’s clever writing and the script landed a nomination for Mike Figgis too, for his tough adaptation of the semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien. In accepting his Oscar, Cage thanked “the late John O’Brien, whose spirit moved me so much.” That’s because, while the story is fiction, Ben isn’t light years away from John, who died by his own hand shortly after signing over the film rights to his book.

His end wasn’t as romantic as Ben’s. He was alone in his apartment in Beverly Hills with a shotgun for company. Yet, this film provided him with the platform he needed to be taken seriously as a writer. His sister was able to get some of his unpublished novels into print and Leaving Las Vegas ensures that he will be read.

My most obvious appreciations are for the two lead performances. Cage is outstanding as he walks a clever balance between believably out of control and his traditional over the top. In every one of his many gonzo performances, he’s an actor. Here, he becomes a character, a crucial delineation. Shue is very different, the life to his death. She’s as crude as her chosen profession might suggest, but she’s tender too and, while neither is each other’s salvation, it is fair to say that they help each other a great deal during the four weeks Ben thinks he has.

His best scenes may be the ones in which he wakes up with the DTs and has to find a way to the fridge to get alcohol back into his system, in order to let him function as a human being again. Hers are the ones where she knows she can’t save him but dearly wants to. One where she buys him a flask is a textbook in showing the combination of care and pain on her face.

However, I appreciated the filmmaking too. This plays very loose, with an impressionistic texture, shot on 16mm rather than 35mm and with lots of shots where the frame rate lowers in mimickry of a drunk man seeing the world in flashes. It’s very much an art film that made the ever-elusive breakthrough to mainstream acceptance.

That said, I wonder how often its fans watch it. It reminds me of the British kitchen sink dramas that tend to leave me stunned by their power but with an abiding wish never to see them again. Whole scenes of dialogue are lost beneath the tasty soft jazz soundtrack, much of it sung by Sting. I guess it’s meant to be just as impressionistic as the visuals.

There’s also some serious talent here, often in blink and you’ll miss ’em cameos. Cage and Shue are by far the most obvious characters, a majority of the film reserved for them. Julian Sands is third billed because he’s Sera’s crazy Latvian pimp Yuri. Everybody else is fleeting.

Far beneath them on the credits are French Stewart, as a businessman at a party that gets Sera as a present; Mike Figgis and Ed Lauter as gangsters aiming to take down Yuri; a bearded R. Lee Ermey as a conventioneer Sera fails to pick up; Julian Lennon as one of a succession of bartenders; Mariska Hargitay as a hooker at a crucial moment in the film; Bob Rafelson as a friendly face at a mall; even Xander Berkeley and Lou Rawls as cabbies. Shawnee Smith has a memorable scene as a biker chick too.

I thought I’d seen this before, but it didn’t take much time for me to realise that I hadn’t. It’s a powerful film on a first viewing, but I do wonder how it’ll play on a second. I can’t say I was surprised by much that happened, even if it’s rare to see a major film dive so deeply into substance abuse, especially alcohol, without a moral message or a happy ending.

What surprised me was how good both Cage and Shue are here. Nothing in this First Thirty prepared me for this performance. I’ve liked a lot of quirky roles and his good guy roles. The ones diving deepest into dark drama may be memorable but not always in good ways, such as Vampire’s Kiss, Time to Kill and Zandalee. This is memorable and incredibly good.

I haven’t seen as much of Shue’s work, but I know her primarily for much lighter material, like The Karate Kid, Adventures in Babysitting and the Back to the Future sequels. I’ve seen tougher roles on TV, like CSI and The Boys, but this is a league above those. Everything she does here tasks her with showing two emotions at once and she nails them all.

The best scene for them both has to be their eventual sex scene, not that it’s sexy or sultry or sensual. We see little of either actor and the pair of characters are wrecks at this point. It’s just meaningful, both to the characters and to us, and it’s that meaning that may well stay with me longest from the film.

1 comment:

Karen said...

I remember when this one came out -- all the acclaim made it a must-see. It was so dark that it wasn't one that I wanted to give a rewatch, but Cage and Shue were excellent!