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From classic literature like Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” to the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” self-destruction has long been a common artistic trope. Mike Figgis brings his directorial eye to this very theme in his romantic tragedy “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995). Based on the novel by John O’Brien, the film deftly explores the challenge of caring deeply for a person with devastating flaws. Through portraying the tension between the protagonists’ profound connection and persisting inner demons, Figgis artfully explores love, despair, and the capacity for — and, ultimately, futility of — change.
One of the film’s most notable cinematic elements is sound. During the opening credits, a man’s voiceover echoes against a black screen and foreshadows the self-destruction to come: “Have you ever had the feeling that you’re that close to losing your mind?” An ironically upbeat score accompanies a montage of Ben Sanderson (Nicholas Cage) placing dozens of bottles of liquor into his shopping cart, an apt introduction to his alcoholism. Soon after his wife and son leave him, he gets fired from his job, leaving him destitute and adrift. Ben resolves to move to Las Vegas and reinvent himself. So he drives to Nevada alone, with a giant bottle of vodka clutched in his free hand.
Ben’s turbulence is mirrored by the profound unhappiness of Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute who acts as the film’s co-lead. Trapped in an abusive relationship with her manager Yuri (Julian Sands), she moves through life dissociated and disillusioned. Until she meets Ben, that is. Drunk and stumbling out of his car, he requests her services on the streets of Vegas. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Ben is more interested in companionship than sex. “You can have more money. You can drink all you want. Just stay,” he beseeches to a baffled Sera. “That’s what I want, I want you to talk or listen, just stay.” In the peaceful quiet of Ben’s hotel room, the two reflect on the winding drawbacks of their lives. Both individuals — plagued by solitude — are buoyed by their mutual connection.
Despite their uplifting bond, it becomes increasingly difficult to condone Ben’s incompetence. Their relationship is tragically asymmetrical: While Sera endures violence and abuse from customers to make money, Ben crashes for free on her sofa, drinking himself into a dreamy stupor. When Sera suggests a weekend getaway, he quickly accepts. Their vacation is ruined, however, when an inebriated Ben breaks a glass table by the pool. He commences to nonsensically scream, “I’m like a prickly pear!” before staggering, drunk, into their room. It is Sera who picks up broken glass from the concrete and is berated by an angry hotel owner who demands they evacuate the premises by morning. Ben eventually goes as far as to be intimate with a woman from a casino in Sera’s own bed — a momentous betrayal.
Perhaps Figgis's whole point, however, is the frustrating codependence of the protagonists. Ben extends companionship and kindness to Sera during her most vulnerable moments. In turn, Sera provides Ben the friendship he needs as he spirals into the clutches of alcoholism, depression, and existential despair. Both characters possess identities stigmatized by society. Through their bond, they humanize and uplift one another in a world that has all but turned its back to them.
Though every actor delivers a convincing performance, it is Shue who takes on the most emotionally demanding role — and executes it flawlessly. Deftly alternating between a steely exterior and flashes of violent emotion, Shue captures Sera’s simultaneous distrust of and intense desire for human connection. In a particularly memorable scene, Ben, detecting a hint of exasperation from Sera, suggests that he leave her home and relocate to a motel. Her strained expression reveals that she knows Ben is drinking himself to death. She looks up at him with tears in her eyes and responds, “And do what? Rot away in a room?” It is the nonchalance with which Sera utters these words over the dinner table that make them so deeply disturbing.
The most devastating aspect of the film is that Ben’s tragedy is sealed before he meets Sera. Nothing can reverse his belief that his life is not worth living, a conviction that extends the question: Was it even fair, then, for him to be with Sera? The film’s final image — a flashback to Ben grinning at Sera during their first encounter on the streets of Vegas — starkly juxtaposes the bleakness of the present. As the credits begin to role, one cannot help but trouble over the argument the film extends about the futility of change. Ultimately, Figgis seems to contend, no one can fight our darkest fears in our place.
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