The key to understanding Leaving Las Vegas is that it’s only marginally about alcoholism. Yes, the main character, down-and-out screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), could drink Dudley Moore’s Arthur under the table and still walk a straight line. But what you get isn’t the usual When a Man Loves a Woman TV-movie-of-the-week, in which Ben slowly and painfully pulls himself out of the hell of oblivion. For Ben, oblivion is heaven. It doesn’t take long to realize what Leaving Las Vegas is going to be: a two-hour-long suicide. Ben’s life is pretty much over — his marriage is history, he can’t get arrested in Hollywood — and he decides to go out on his own terms, candidly admitting his plan to drink himself to death.
This road is slower than, say, OD-ing on heroin, and much faster than eating oneself to death, like the poor bastard in Seven. The lingering, bitter execution by the bottle has a dark glamour, and the writer-director, Mike Figgis, doesn’t deny it. Figgis doesn’t gasp in horror at what Ben is doing to himself, nor does he make it look like fun. What he does do is almost impossible to sustain. The most effective addiction movies tantalize us with the early scenes of the protagonist compulsively indulging his needs; then there’s usually a big splashdown, and while the protagonist inches his way back to sanity, we do penance for our voyeuristic enjoyment of his decline. Disintegration is an old and perversely satisfying tradition in drama, but it’s only socially acceptable to enjoy it as long as we understand that healing and redemption are just around the corner. In Leaving Las Vegas, Figgis presents disintegration as a state of grace. He doesn’t romanticize alcoholism or suicide, but he does suggest the intensification of feeling in the midst of numbness. Adapting a novel by John O’Brien, who killed himself two weeks after Figgis had committed to the project, Figgis goes well beyond the slickness of his previous movies. The film is trancelike and intimate, cool but not cold, with an erotic glow that provides a comforting (and sometimes disturbing) contrast of warmth.
In a possible nod to Taxi Driver, Ben almost runs over a Vegas hooker, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), and is immediately smitten with her. Ben takes her back to his ratty hotel room and pays her for a night of service, which amounts to a night of lying around talking, since Ben can’t perform. Sera is touched and intrigued by this gentle, rambling, self-destructive man, and thus begins one of the darkest, most mysterious romances in modern movies. Sera’s Eurotrash pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) is the flip side of Ben: he’s self-destructive, too, but he’s also vicious and cold. Her scenes with Yuri are meant to show us what she’s glad to leave behind — not hooking (which she continues), but hooking for an abusive jerk — but Julian Sands doesn’t have the seductive aura of danger that, say, Harvey Keitel did in Taxi Driver. Yuri is killed off early in the movie, and I expected this to have some bearing on the rest of the story, but it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s to show the contrast between Yuri, a screw-up who takes his sickness out on Sera, and Ben, a screw-up who generally only takes his sickness out on himself (which, in this movie’s terms, is semi-heroic). Maybe Figgis also wanted to avoid the typical scenes of Yuri getting jealous of Ben and trying to kill him. The pimp isn’t important to Figgis, anyway. The heart of the movie is Ben and Sera, the walking dead who find life in death.
Nicolas Cage keeps Ben a mystery to us, yet he gives us access to his emotions. The performance is all over the place and tightly contained at the same time. Is Ben believable as a person? Not really, and that’s not really the point. Ben is abstract, but not in the hip, unfeeling way that the characters in Heat were. As a character, Ben is like the lurching, discordant, unpredictable jazz on the soundtrack (which Figgis composed). Cage’s performance is a long, bluesy riff on self-annihilation, and this works better than a hyper-realistic characterization, in which a lesser actor might pull together a boring, analytical portrait that details how Ben got this way. Cage couldn’t care less how Ben got this way — Ben is this way, and that’s all that matters. Ben may not be “real” — Figgis admits as much when we first see Ben filling a shopping cart with booze — but his emotions are, and they’re not emotions we often encounter in a movie. Ben knows what he wants, and Sera’s love doesn’t change what he wants. Yet she’s more to him than just a distraction on the way to death. She treats him with the gentleness that he can’t and won’t give himself.
Elisabeth Shue actually has the tougher role. The phrase “hooker with a heart of gold” never once entered my head, though it easily could have. Sera wants to give Ben love in the only way she thinks she can, through sex, but she doesn’t realize that the impotent Ben gets something from her that transcends sex. Shue, whose comeback should have begun here, makes us feel Sera’s frustration and shifting affection for Ben, her yearning for peace. We’ve seen similar prostitutes many times before in movies — the hooker redeemed by the love of a good man — but what’s new about Shue’s performance is its lack of obvious masochism. Whereas Jennifer Jason Leigh might have brought seething self-disgust to the role, Shue gives us a woman who, like Ben, accepts exactly what she is. Sera’s awakening is moving not just because she responds to Ben’s basic decency but because she’s confused, and then comforted, by the kindness she didn’t know she still had in her. If Ben isn’t quite “real,” Sera is real enough for both of them.
Leaving Las Vegas is most certainly not for everyone — not for the literal-minded, anyway (I’ve heard grumblings about it on the order of “Only in a movie could a beautiful Vegas hooker fall for a smelly drunk”). I would hope that even those who might be repelled by the subject matter and the occasional harshness (there’s an extremely painful gang-rape sequence) would respond, like Ben and Sera, to the odd and flickering emotions that the situation stirs up in them. We know that Ben is as good as dead, and that Sera isn’t going to “save” him in the conventional sense. To be blunt, you have to make a certain leap and, like Sera, agree with Ben that his chosen course is the right one for him. This is a leap of imagination, and is not the same thing as justifying actual suicide. If you stand outside the movie for two hours pouting in disapproval, Leaving Las Vegas is going to be a very cold and unsatisfying experience. If you let it take you where it’s going, it’s one of the most powerful rides in years.