In “Leaving Las Vegas,” Nicolas Cage assays a character who’s on a slide to touch bottom as he sinks deeper into depression and alcoholism. The film pulls no punches, takes no prisoners and flies in the face of feel-good pictures. And while highly laudable on an artistic level, the picture needs to attract top-flight critical response to make more than a modest dent at the box office. Commercially, its prospects are akin to that of a reformed tippler — not impossible, just precarious.
Unrelenting in its vision, the artistic tour de force by director Mike Figgis is a descent into the abyss. Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a Hollywood talent rep who has dived into the bottle, coming up for air and lucidity from time to time. When he’s functional, Ben can make a combination of bluster and self-pity amusing. More often his presence is nightmarish.
It’s not long before he’s shown the door at the agency. He burns most of his past in a trash can, shuts up his house and heads for the gambling capital. He puts himself on an allowance and contends that he’ll be able to drink himself to death in four to five weeks.
The story is familiar enough both in real life and in fiction. But the film is powerful and original because it’s singularly nonjudgmental and eschews the trappings of pop psychology. While it seems Ben has arrived at this point because of a failed marriage, the real reason is likely much more complex. Why he chooses Vegas as his final stop is anyone’s guess.
So, pic’s not at all about what has been but, rather, what is.
Every conceivable cliche is turned on its head. While focused on Ben, story evolves into a two-character piece in which he’s partnered with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute whose back story is equally nebulous. She’s attracted to his vulnerability, and he agrees to move in with her on condition she never ask him to stop drinking.
The two performers are attractive without pushing it. There’s a natural tendency to believe there will be redemption for one or both by the fade. The absence of a cathartic finale will be difficult for most moviegoers.
Cage is in top form as he purposefully stumbles through the movie. Apart from innate charm, he sidesteps any effort to make the character endearing.
Shue is equally skillful. She’s neither a hooker with a heart of gold nor an actress dressing down to a role. Rather, one feels her character has fallen into this life while pursuing another path.
Large supporting cast provides many cameos, including Figgis (as a goon), director Bob Rafelson and familiar faces Lou Rawls and Valeria Golino. Julian Sands, as Sera’s Latvian-born pimp, does a brief, effective turn prior to running afoul of the new Russian mafia.
Declan Quinn’s camera lends a fresh perspective to Vegas’ outsize urban vistas. Figgis’ score is a visceral treat, but the pic’s song score is crowded and distracting.
“Leaving Las Vegas” is grueling and challenging — certainly among a scant handful of films that have taken an unflinching view of dependency. It’s not a film to cozy up to but, rather, a jarring, penetrating and sobering wake-up call.