Leaving Las Vegas is a film best watched on its own. It’s easier to handle when you’re on your own. You can sink back in your chair, shut out your surroundings, concentrate harder, lose concentration, block your ears, turn your head or press the pause button and go get yourself a drink. There are many films that are aided by viewing company, and Mike Figgis’ adaptation of John O’Brien’s 1990 novel of the same name isn’t one of them.
O’Brien never experienced Leaving Las Vegas as a film, because he committed suicide shortly after plans had been announced . Really, due to the self-portrait of the author found in one of the book’s two central characters, Ben Sanderson, his novel would serve as an intricate and thought-out suicide note.
Mike Figgis took the novel and used it to piece together the film’s screenplay. Like the novel, the film circulates around an alcoholic screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) who moves to Las Vegas where he plans to spend the final period of his life literally drowning in bourbon. In the process, he meets a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and an unconventional romance ensues. In the script, Figgis chooses to focus primarily on Ben, placing Sera behind him in a more secondary position. O’Brien’s original story circulates largely around Sera, introducing Ben well into the book (on the 59th page). The relationship formed between Ben and Sera is tragic in its destructive nature. Both these characters are wounded and cling to each other. The love that develops between these two protagonists works to complicate Ben’s objective, though he doesn’t stop drinking, as Sera continues to sell her body on the streets of Vegas.
Cage and Shue give the best performances of their careers, convincing entirely. Cage’s portrayal of Ben is one of burnt-out elegance, the picture of promise marginalized. Shue as Sera is wounded and hurt. And while there is pity to be found in her character, a hope is present which, contrastingly, has long passed in Ben. Because of this, her story might be the most difficult to handle. Leaving Las Vegas shouldn’t really be seen as a film about a drunk and a hooker. Instead, the important stuff lies behind the protagonists’ occupations. The people themselves become two characters that viewers sympathise with and warm to and for this, credit must be given. A lot of the time, it is hard to look past what people do, in order to uncover who people are.
Leaving Las Vegas is an astonishingly powerful film. This was a surprise, because at the time, the official trailer made it look more like a romantic comedy in Vegas (possessing a cheesiness all too common in the mid-nineties). The whole thing feels a bit too sad, though it carries through as essential viewing. The reason for this is the evident hope found lingering in dark corners, the love that is there to be fought and tried for.
Read at Unsung Films:
The Nicolas Cage Paradox (by Angeliki Coconi)