Film Review: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Director: Mike Figgis

Cast: Nicholas Cage, Elisabeth Shue

Year: 1995

Before Nicholas Cage married, divorced and spent vast amounts of money that forced him to take every part that came his way not to fall into bankruptcy, he was once a sought-after actor with a natural gift and the mainstream appeal to bring box office revenue to any project.

Sometime in the mid-nineties, right before he turned into an action-movie star with films like “The Rock” and “Con-Air”, Nicholas Cage took the role of Ben, a freshly divorced Hollywood agent in the last stages of alcoholism who, after being fired from his job, decides to move to Las Vegas to drink himself to death.

Directed and written by Mike Figgis, Leaving Las Vegas is a film filled with hope and hopelessness in equal measure.
Rarely has a film been so candid about the all-consuming illness and yet so hopeful about the possibility of finding love and support at our darkest hour. Despite the crudeness in which alcoholism is presented, Nicholas Cage embodies a character that is likeable whether it be for his undeniable drunken charm or simply because he deserves our pity.

What is most intriguing about Leaving Las Vegas is also what makes it a polarizing piece of film. The raw quality of the presentation and the performances makes it real, gritty and genuine, but it also makes it hard to stomach and difficult to embrace, certainly not a piece of film that invites future viewings.

Ben is on a road to perdition, tragically hopeless, with enough self-loathing to drink himself to death, slowly killing himself as if he deserves the punishment. Though it may have been the case at first, Ben is no longer a drunk that seeks solace in the bottle. Drinking has become all he knows, an all-consuming illness that he has no intention of abandoning, even as he realizes it is killing him. On his downward spiral he meets his “angel”, a hooker named Sera, played with disarming honesty by Elisabeth Shue. More than being Ben’s story until his ultimate demise, Leaving Las Vegas is Sera’s film. She is as lost and lonely as Ben seems to be. In him she finds a companion who accepts her completely for who she is. Unlike Ben, Sera starts the film pretending she is okay being who she is. Leaving Las Vegas is about the unlikely bond between these two characters as much as it is about Sera’s self-realization of how badly she needs to change her life.

Despite the very powerful performances and interesting character studies that are at the heart of Leaving Las Vegas, I found myself having a hard time connecting with the story. In a way, it reminded me of Requiem for a Dream, where addiction is presented in an equally raw and convincing manner. Whereas Aronofsky’s film delivers a punch through a rich visual delivery and an intense pace, Leaving Las Vegas moves with the pace of a drunk, slowly and in a haze, supported by a soundtrack that is repetitive and intoxicating, as if it came from a jukebox in an endless loop after a wild night of drinking. As a result, the film feels almost like a tragic documentary, one that can be appreciated as an incredibly powerful story with so much sadness and self-loathing that makes a second viewing highly unlikely.

Rating: 3.5/5 (good)

Next in the Blog of Big Ideas: Top 10 films of a ten year old

10 thoughts on “Film Review: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

  1. Cage is perfect in this flick and it’s a shame since he does shit in today’s day and age. Shue is also amazing too and hasn’t done much ever since this either. Good review.

  2. This has been on my must-see list for a while now. It sounds right up my alley, even if it is one that I probably won’t want to see more than once. Nice review, Niels!

  3. I have not seen this since it first came out and as I recall Cage and Shue both gave powerful performances in this depressing film.

    Shue is back in Vegas on CSI with Ted Danson…. gulp…

    nice review, makes me want to give this a rewatch

  4. This film remains proof that Nicolas Cage was once an amazing actor. I mean, he won an Oscar for it! I haven’t seen this film in a long time. A good review and reminder of a film from time past where Cage was sought after for talent as opposed to someone willing to play any role for money.

  5. I should give this a watch as it’s one of those rare Nic Cage movies, ahah. Sounds like one has to be in the right mood to watch it though.

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