Saturday 19 January 2019

Movie Review: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

An intense character study, Leaving Las Vegas explores a friendship at the margins of society, where two knowingly damaged people connect in search of pure companionship.

In Los Angeles, middle-aged Ben (Nicolas Cage) is a full-blown alcoholic. Estranged from his ex-wife and son, he lives a life of nothing but excessive drinking and womanizing. Ben is not surprised when he is fired, and uses his final paycheque to relocate to a sleazy motel room in Las Vegas with every intention of drinking himself to death.

A chance encounter with prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue) evolves into an unlikely friendship. When her Russian pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) meets troubles of his own, Sera invites Ben to move in with her. He accepts on condition that she never asks him to stop drinking. She continues working as an independent prostitute, and their relationship evolves towards genuine caring.

An admitted alcoholic with no intentions of drying out and a prostitute proud of her profession make for an unlikely pair to place at the centre of a would-be romantic drama. And yet director and writer Mike Figgis, adapting John O'Brien's semi-autobiographical book, fearlessly marches his film towards the down-and-out fringes seeking humanity's unifying sparks.

Leaving Las Vegas carries echoes of Midnight Cowboy as it teases out compassion from the filthy corners where human debris accumulates. Despite a neon-bathed Las Vegas featuring prominently as a backdrop, neither Ben nor Sera are here to enjoy the town. Alcohol is the only source of Ben's pleasure, and any room he occupies is soon overflowing with bottles. Sera navigates her profession with a survivor's practiced efficiency, maintaining a steady disposition and even demonstrating a level of empathy towards Yuri.

Ben and Sera reach a core understanding that they can care for each other only if they don't impose conditions of change. Maintaining their self-destructive trajectories is essential to who they are; and the relationship exists strictly on an "as is" basis. Figgis strips out most of their backgrounds, highlighting the immediacy of here and now: it shall not matter to Ben and Sera how they got here, only that they are here, now, and can be companions through the emotional darkness.

And it's vivid immediacy Figgis searches for, often drowning the dialogue with melancholy music. At their stage in life Ben and Sera really have not much of value to say to each other; closeness is what matters.

Nicolas Cage's descent into Ben's abyss is almost physically painful to watch, and ensures the film is always walking to the edge of despair. Elisabeth Shue finds the role of her career, providing Sera with remarkable restraint and quiet acceptance, plus a layer of searching tension just below the surface.

Leaving Las Vegas is the end of frivolous escapism, but departure is softened in the presence of a soulmate.

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