Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #573
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: October 27, 1995
Genre: Character Study
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $32,029,928
Running Time: 112 minutes
Director: Mike Figgis
Producers: Lila Cazès, Annie Stewart
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
Based on a novel by John O’Brien
Cinematography: Declan Quinn
Score: Anthony Marinelli, Mike Figgis
Editing: John Smith
Studio: Lumiere Pictures, Lila Cazès Production, A, Initial Productions
Distributor: United Artists
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands, Steven Weber, Kim Adams, Emily Procter, Stuart Regen, Valeria Golino, Graham Beckel
Suggested Audio Jukebox ♫
 Mike Figgis “Leaving Las Vegas”
 Michael McDonald “Lonely Teardrops”
 Don Henley “Come Rain or Come Shine”
 Sting “Angel Eyes”
In three years of playing “critic”, no appraisal has been as personal as the one you are about to read. It has always been my intention to elaborate on how a film relates to my own experience and, should that mean baring my soul to my readership, then I do so without a moment’s hesitation. By doing so, my aim is to scratch a little deeper beneath the surface, reveal a little more, and give a little of myself in the process. Primarily the films I place under the microscope are horror-themed and, more often than not, there is not a great deal of soul-searching required. However, it doesn’t stop there and my tastes range wide and far. One thing that has always interested me is character studies and that has something to do with my desire to understand what makes the human mind tick. However, seldom have I come across so many parallels as I have during my time shooting the shit with a certain Ben Sanderson.
Our primary introduction to Ben (Nicolas Cage) sets the tone for the next 112 minutes as whatever hardships have befallen him have done so before our story begins and he is way past praying for an epiphany. Once a Hollywood screenwriter, husband, and family man, he is now pretty much your average barfly and his constant struggle with alcoholism has been responsible for his dwindling fortunes. We join him during one of his regular binges and it is plain from the offset that hope is something that he no longer holds onto. Seen as an irritant by those he used to consider his friends, estranged to his wife and son, and generally avoided like the plague by other patrons at whatever bar he is propping up, Ben is one of life’s lost causes and has long since accepted his lowly stature.
He drinks beyond excess, unsuccessfully attempts to pick up women in a bid to temporarily fill the ever-widening void and spends the lion’s share of his existence in a drunken stupor. This guy couldn’t shit a break so, when he is finally put out of his (and everyone else’s) misery and fired from his job, the generous severance package he is offered represents one of his better days. It is also the very last straw as it affords him the opportunity of realizing the one dream he still holds onto – to take a long-overdue road trip to Las Vegas. Sounds like he has fallen on his feet right? A city that never sleeps, where alcohol is available on tap, and he is surrounded by a constant buzz of activity. Perhaps this could be the turning point for Ben that he so desperately needs. A few weeks there and he can return refreshed and ready to turn his life around. Alas, a voyage of discovery and fulfillment is not on his list of priorities.
Indeed, said list comprises only a solitary goal – to drink himself into oblivion in the fastest time humanly possible. By Ben’s estimations, that shouldn’t take long provided he sticks to a rigid diet plan of nothing whatsoever that doesn’t pass straight through him. He is actually rather chipper as he commences his drive, clutching his poison of choice, and in high spirits in more ways than one. Make no mistake though, behind those bloodshot eyes is a tidal wave of pain and personal anguish. Ben hasn’t so much reached the end of his tether as been enabled to sever it entirely and, at this point in his downward spiral, that suits him just fine. The Glitter Gulch welcomes him with open arms as it does any other waifs and strays with money to burn. Entrances to casinos are plentiful but you try locating an exit, whilst getting high on the pure oxygen they pump out to discourage any cat napping. He’s come to precisely the right place to fast track.
However, while mincing about the strip inebriated, something inexplicable occurs. He runs into prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue) and, while initially it appears that their association will entail a few minutes of on-the-clock coitus and the obligatory blackout, in exchange for a small wedge of his allotted pocket-money, their brief time together is about to provide the closest he will come to absolution.
$500 buys him pretty much what his heart desires but Ben’s heart desires only one thing at this point – a friendly ear. This is something she has two of and, moreover, it makes a distinct change from the service she ordinarily provides. You see, while Sera appears to be in demand, and knows exactly how to use her God given assets to her advantage, she is also floundering.
Having recently been tracked down by her sadomasochistic pimp Yuri (Julian Sands), a Latvian immigrant who regards her as very much his property, any money she makes is headed straight for his pocket or else she will suffer the consequences. However, her problems run far deeper than being under his kosh as she has also misplaced her identity. When she is turning tricks, this doesn’t present an issue as she happens to be damn good at sex and delivering whatever fantasy her clients request. It’s the rest of the time that is the issue here.
So when she happens across Ben and is made to feel purposeful for a reason that doesn’t involve spreading her legs, it touches something deep inside her that has remained under her sole jurisdiction until now. Barriers are superfluous to requirements here as he has no intention of exploiting her frailty and the feeling runs both ways.
Suddenly an unexpected romance begins to blossom and, what is critical here, is the terms and conditions that apply. Ben is adamant that his mind is set and, should he accept her kind offer of caring for him on her own turf, then she is not to attempt saving him as his condition worsens. He is sincere from the offset as this undertaking will not be a walk in the park and, if she thinks she has seen him at his worst, then she is soon to be sorely mistaken. This forthright gesture is greatly appreciated, thus she obliges him without procrastination. There is no deceit, no hidden agenda, Ben doesn’t possess the ability for either and his gentle and thoughtful nature is an aphrodisiac as intoxicating to her as the alcohol he plies himself with habitually. In short, he provides her with a sense of purpose and that is all the payment she cares about.
True to his word, things do get worse and quickly too, thus any honeymoon period is fleeting. Ben’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic but never in a way that is directed towards Sera, at least, not intentionally. Moreover, the pain of his plight starts to outweigh the pleasure as his body struggles to keep up with the punishment it is being put through. Granted, she made a pledge and has every intention of honoring that to the bitter end, but it is excruciating for her watching the man she loves unconditionally slowly dissolve before her.
There is a hope that she clings to desperately that threatens to compromise what they have but, regardless of personal feeling, she keeps up her end of the bargain. Sera has precious little self-respect so this is as close to happiness as she feels she deserves to get and a darned sight closer than anything she has felt before.
Nicolas Cage deservedly bagged himself a Best Actor Oscar for his woozy turn as Ben Sanderson and this plays to every one of his strengths beautifully. He spends almost the entirety of his screen time in a drunken haze, swaying between misplaced swagger and quiet vulnerability and, like his keeper, we’re never sure which of the two is going to present itself. However, it is the latter that makes his performance so startling as, while his misguided actions can infuriate to the absolute hilt, we too find ourselves caring unconditionally. While unexpected outbursts are certainly in his repertoire, they are never once violent and, his affection for Sera, not in question. Under different circumstances, the two could have been happy beyond their wildest dreams, and somehow inexplicably they still are. But a deal is a deal and his life ended the moment he first staggered onto the strip, nay before that.
However, while Leaving Las Vegas could, and should, be a one-man show, that couldn’t be farther from accurate. Had Oscar been known to recognize the kind of understated performance that Elisabeth Shue gives here, then she too would have a statue to polish. Alas, while nominated in the Best Actress category, it predictably wasn’t to be and that saddens my soul as, without Sera, Ben’s plight simply has no meaning. The two share a chemistry so utterly unrefined and her part in that is no less pronounced than his. Indeed, given that Ben’s trajectory has been set in advance of their association commencing, it is actually her that provides the emotional center point. Shue’s task is as thankless as her character’s and, to her infinite credit, there isn’t a solitary second where she falters.
Of course, director and screenwriter Mike Figgis deserves massive praise for his glorious adaptation of John O’Brien’s novel. Leaving Las Vegas is essentially a love story, but one wholly devoid of cliché and as unwilling to compromise its flight path as Ben Sanderson. Three words here resonate incredibly strongly and they are “I love you”. Both Ben and Sera make this proclamation throughout but are never looking for an audience when doing so thus it always feels heartfelt and genuine. Figgis uses 16mm film to tell his tale and Declan Quinn’s cinematography tempers the neon lights of Sin City with enough shade to ensure we always feel the hopelessness amidst its seduction. He is also partly responsible for the jazz heavy score, along with Anthony Marinelli, and this is just as crucial to setting the tone. Moreover, their compositions are looped throughout which echoes Ben’s inescapable fate exquisitely.
So the time has come to get personal as I mentioned parallels at the offset and feel ready now to elaborate further. You see, while alcohol has never been my particular drug of choice, I know precisely the point that Ben has reached as, almost three years ago, a similar thing happened to me. Granted, his past is only skimmed over briefly during the opening, but it is clear that his marriage didn’t break down as a result of any lack of love on his part. Neither was it as cut-and-dried as alcoholism, regardless of any trigger points his dependency supplied. Much the same can be said of the breakdown of my own marriage. I made the decision to leave and it was the hardest I have ever been required to make as I still adored her. Moreover, my son was three-years-old at the time, and at a vital time in his development.
While addiction did fast-track our relationship to the rocks, it wasn’t the actual reason for my departure. I won’t divulge any more here and not because of an unwillingness to share. Certain heartbreak is simply best not revisited, as there is more than one person involved here. However, I am an open book with regards to how this affected me personally. For a long time afterwards, I had no great desire to live, other than the fact that I knew how many lives it would devastate should I punch out early, most critically, my son’s. I worshiped my father and, when I gaze into his ocean blue eyes, the same hero-worship looks back at me. He is the reason I am still sat here now as nothing else could have obstructed my path of self-destruction.
I made every attempt not to take care of myself, treated my shell with contempt frequently, and knew how to speed up the process without ever once being required to take more desperate measures. Suicide just isn’t an option to me but neglect was an angle that I was far more open to and my body began sending out all manner of warnings. Smoking frequently, both nicotine and marijuana, I guzzled multiple energy drinks daily just to assist with the internal capitulation, and made sure that my diet reflected my desire to speed up the process. At the time I was also on prescribed antidepressants to top up my brain’s plummeting serotonin levels and the potent mixture of all the above had all sorts of repercussions. Indeed, I lost count of the amount of times that I prayed for release and not the kind that involved an unforeseen lottery win either. I simply wanted out.
Ben has a plan more fool-proof than mine and perhaps wants out a little more than I ever did, if I’m honest. My writing saw me through many of my darkest hours and, had it not been for the therapy this provided and constant support of those who were touched by my prose, then I can pinpoint certain nights that may well have been my last. I remember cursing the fact that I come from such good stock as, how my lungs never collapsed or heart ceased beating, will be a mystery I will take to my eventual grave. But somehow I made it through and, while the void will always be present, I managed to overcome my will for foreclosure. Leaving Las Vegas speaks to me personally and its sincerity can never be questioned.
Make absolutely no mistake, films don’t get much more downbeat than this and allowing it to wash over you is unlikely to leave you feeling warm and fuzzy. That said, it isn’t bereft of hope. Even in Ben’s darkest hour, the light of Sera’s love still shines brightly, proving that humanity very much exists and, moreover, in the most unexpected of places. You have to search hard for the positives and many may fail to spot any whatsoever but they do exist and there’s great comfort to be taken from that.
Leaving Las Vegas is a beautiful, poignant and ultimately heartbreaking film that is bold enough never to shy away from the cold hard facts but flat refuses to tear out said heart without leaving a little keepsake in its place. I will carry that gift with me in every last one of my future endeavors and, when my chip stack eventually diminishes, would feel very much at peace departing in the same manner as Ben Sanderson.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 10/10
In a previous article of Keeper of the Crimson Quill who analysed the controversial Love, I grabbed my scalpel to dissect the set of themes developed by Gaspard Noé in his film and try to respond to the questions raised by the director. I now take advantage of this analysis of Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas to seize my scalpel once again and perform dissection on this exciting but very delicate topic that is the theme of true love. Indeed, if Leaving Las Vegas and Love both set out the same miserable and disenchanted reality of what is the human condition, their approach regarding the sole solution that love offers us differs radically while supplementing themselves. After the fashion of Love, Leaving Las Vegas follows the fortunes of two broken beings in need of acceptance and affection. But where Noé’s movie attempts to show the inability of two beings to love instead focuses on their misfortune, Figgis’s film allows its characters to spread the wings and surrender to true love, even though all is unquestionably lost for them.
Leaving Las Vegas is a heart-breaking movie that speaks of frustration, annihilation, and love. It reveals absolute, infinite, unconditional love that doesn’t fear suffering nor the ravages of disease, or death and which is born to overcome evil and pain indefinitely. Because it occurs in Sin City, metropolis of all fantasies, the love that was born by chance between Ben, an adrift screenwriter whose days are numbered because of his incurable alcoholism, and Sera, a pretty abused blonde who doesn’t know love and sells its charms to live, seems absolutely surreal and highly gratifying to us. It is impossible not to be dazed and fascinated by this miracle of devotion that unfolds with supreme grace before our eyes even when it clashes. Moreover, we are captivated by the fact that Ben and Sera love each other even though they wrestle in a dreadfully morbid and extremely precarious situation. Basically, can we truly love and be loved when we are alcoholic to the last degree and unable to present another face than the face of decay and death to the person we care for? Can we, on the other hand, love and be loved when we only give to others what they expect of us and when the person we cherish only has death to offer? These are the issues we are facing and that dissolve as quickly as they appear so powerful is the strength of this glue which binds Ben and Sera.
To render this incomparable love both on the spiritual and sensual level, Figgis and his leading actors Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue donate their hearts and souls to their art and offer us an emotional journey of rare and remarkable intensity. The quest for absolution is what leads Ben and Sera to find each other and Figgis shows that love is the only possible conclusion to this life-saving quest. It is undoubtedly the one that John O’Brien, the author of the autobiographical novel from which the film is adapted and who committed suicide shortly after learning that it would be transferred to the screen, was looking for. O’Brien identified himself with the character of Ben and saw in Sera (Seraph angel of highest ranking), his supreme angel capable of saving him from his addiction. Sera loves Ben deeply for who he is and not simply for herself or for what he brings to her even if she denies her unselfishness. She gives everything she has in an almost sacrificial way. Besides she also admits having never known what love is and more than her body, she offers Ben her soul because the dying writer gives her the chance to love and to be loved without judgment, without questioning, for ever and ever, eternally.
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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