Directed by Mike Figgis
We get right to the point with the romance between Ben and Sera (Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue) in Leaving Las Vegas. One is an alcoholic, and the other is a prostitute. They’ve both moved to Las Vegas following disappointing or unsustainable lives in Los Angeles. You get the sense that try as they might, whatever they couldn’t find in Los Angeles they won’t find in Las Vegas. Well, maybe Ben will because his plan is to drink himself to death in a matter of four weeks, and nothing, not even Sera, will get in the way.
There have been plenty of tortured alcoholics in movies, the kinds whose sickness hasn’t devastated the actor’s chiseled physical appearance, but Ben is truly ill. He’s like Ray Milland in Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, a man so hopelessly drunk that he gets violently ill without a drop, and he hallucinates a bat biting off the head of a rat.
Ben is past saving once the film begins, but it’s our inherent optimism, our familiarity with the ways movies typically work, that allow us to think he can get better. He’s already a ghost, with his eyes sinking into his head and thinning hair that make him look much older than he really is.
We meet Ben at the tail end of his life in Los Angeles, and when he gets fired from his job he might as well already be dead. Ben’s wife left him sometime ago, but he can never remember if the drinking was a part of that or a result of it. He has little to no memory of what used to be his life, and when he arrives in Las Vegas he has lost all connection to who he used to be. In Leaving Las Vegas, Sin City plays the part of purgatory, a waiting room before one dies or is born again.
Using this metaphor, Sera is an angel. Ben will continually refer to her as such, and this might explain her intense, immediate attraction to him. Their romance begins after one night together. Ben picks her up on the strip and offers to pay her for a whole night, but he doesn’t want sex, just someone to talk to.
Throughout the film there are clips of Sera talking to someone, likely a therapist, about Ben. She answers all the questions we might have about her. She explains that she fell in love with him right away and didn’t care to change his ways. Other movies try to get to the point with a romantic relationship but often struggle to make the characters and their romance feel real or at least sincere.
Another Vegas-set movie, The Cooler, jumped to the madly in love stage just as quickly, but I found the relationship much too forced and unbelievable. The relationship in Leaving Las Vegas is just as unbelievable, but it feels earned, and I’m not quite sure why.
There seems to be music (scored by the director himself) carrying the film along every step of the way, but there’s one scene that’s completely silent other than for the two characters speaking. Ben is about to move in with Sera, only a couple days after meeting her, and they both appear a little tickled by this sudden affection they feel for each other. Ben doesn’t exactly understand how she could care for a drunk as lost as him, but he doesn’t push his luck too far. Before things get any more serious, though, he does insist that she never try to get him to stop drinking, and she agrees.
Movie relationships are almost always about the two parties involved growing as individuals. Guy and girl meet, and along the way they learn more about each other, themselves, and they find it within themselves to do that one thing they never quite could before. Even when the relationship doesn’t work out the characters find themselves better off for it. Romance is a healing endeavor.
So that’s why the understanding between Ben and Sera feels so inexplicable. They meet as two lost souls, but they never insist that the other changes. It’s romantic in its own way, but it challenges everything we know about movie characters. She’s a prostitute, so by the end she won’t be a prostitute, right? Putting aside any opinions of the matter of sex work, prostitution as a movie occupation is generally a negative. It’s something established early on in order to be ‘fixed’ by the end. It plays the same role as Ben’s alcoholism.
As the days and weeks pass, Ben and Sera have a mostly happy relationship despite the burdens of his disease and her occupation. He drinks 24/7, and his poor behavior threatens any good standing she might have with her landlords, it gets them kicked out of a casino, and it gets them forced out of a motel. Similarly there is conflict driven by her prostitution. Even though Ben says he is okay with it, there’s a moment where he shows visible apprehension and even frustration with where he knows she’ll be that night.
This becomes a greater rift when Ben takes an escort home one night. Sera arrives, and she kicks him out. They spend the next two or twenty minutes on their own, but we stay with Sera and it’s left up to our imagination what has become of Ben.
We’ve already seen Sera tormented by the men around her, specifically the man she works for who is later killed (off-screen). After she sends Ben packing, she goes back to work, already walking with a pronounced limp, and she is brought to the motel room of a handful of young men who want to record their friend losing his virginity. It’s a disturbing scene in all the ways you imagine it might be, particularly once tempers flare.
In the end Sera tracks Ben down. She’s down on her own luck, but when she finds Ben on the verge of death she helps usher him into whatever the next life may hold. It’s a morbidly beautiful scene, but quite unsettling to be sure. Ben looks as though rigor mortis has set in ahead of time as he reaches for the bottle beside his bed. Sera lies with him, and in another of those scenes with her talking to a therapist she explains that he died.
Leaving Las Vegas is a sad, sad film. There is some catharsis, but there are also upsetting questions left unanswered. Ben gets to be escorted to the grave by the woman he calls his angel, but what about her?
This is a beautiful, troubling film. It doesn’t seem like it should work on paper, but it does. These are two brutally tortured characters who have nothing but each other. That all-or-nothing nature of romance in movies can sometimes feel cheesy or self-indulgent, but in this case it’s the only thing keeping each alive. It doesn’t, of course, ultimately keep Ben alive, and maybe there’s something there about the limits of love as a means of being saved. Or maybe it’s significant that there is someone to remember Ben even after he’s gone, thus keeping him alive in a symbolic way.
The story won’t work if you don’t buy into the characters’ relationship, but I found it so sincere, absurd and on some level realistic. We’re not all alcoholics or disenchanted sex workers, but we have the things about ourselves we might want to change but can’t seem to. We’re all flawed, and some flaws, I suppose, are beyond saving because we’ll never not be flawed. I don’t anticipate one day living to 88 and realizing I’m flawless. Even then I might be a little too passive aggressive at times or too much of a push over or maybe, if I still have my license, I might speed from time to time.
So Leaving Las Vegas might be the work of an optimist, someone who thinks two people can find each other even when they’re convinced that what makes them worth loving is buried beneath layers of sh*t.
Up Next: Bob le Flambeur (1956), His Girl Friday (1940), House of Games (1987)