DIRECTED BY MIKE FIGGIS
STARRING: NICOLAS CAGE, ELISABETH SHUE, JULIAN SANDS, RICHARD LEWIS, STEVEN WEBER, EMILY PROCTER, MARISKA HARGITAY with XANDER BERKELEY and VALERIA GOLINO
There is an interesting conversation somewhere in the middle of ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ which, you’d think, suggests one of two legs that the film would go ahead and stand on. You know Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) is a writer for Film who’s currently out of a job. Here, he sits at a table with Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a prostitute who takes the chance and agrees to have dinner with him. He calls her an ‘angel’, much like how he sighed to Terri (Valeria Golino) when she wouldn’t go to bed with him; much like how he threw lines like dynamite at the woman at the counter at the bank, when he went to cash his severance cheque.
In front of him is food he can’t eat for he has nothing but drink on his mind. Sera, however, has questions on hers. And Ben has the answers – smart ones, at that. Here’s how it goes.
Sera: (casually) “Why are you killing yourself?”Ben: (monotonous) “Interesting choice of words. (pause) I don’t know. I just know that I want to.”Sera: (probes) “Are you saying that your drinking is a way to killing yourself?”Ben: (quick, yet monotonous) “Or killing myself is a way to drink.”Sera: (smiles) “Very clever.”
Every critic I’ve read has talked about this conversation as a sort of fulcrum that the ideological whole of the film balances itself upon. ‘Killing oneself as a way to drink’ would be written on flags of existentialism. Two characters come to mind – both from movies fifteen years after, both portrayed by Ryan Gosling. One is the Driver from ‘Drive’ who drives. The other is Dean Pereira from ‘Blue Valentine’ who questions the concept of ‘having potential’ mentioned in the same manner as ‘being talented.’ Both these men would answer questions with questions; perhaps the Driver would rather remain quiet and use a hammer instead.
I’d like to take a look at Ben’s first response in addition to the second, which appears to be most quoted. Why is he killing himself? He just knows that he wants to. And then we have the classic distinction between the ‘means to an end’ and the ‘end as a means in itself’ to define existence. It’s the vice that splits thought throughout – one renders ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ a sad tragedy of human existence, the other proceeds to glorify the same, speaking of triumph. It’s clear that Ben didn’t start drinking because he lost his job. Is he killing himself for that reason, then? His wife has left him, along with their child. Is that why he’s decided to die? Or had they left him because he had decided to die already and couldn’t deal with a last-gasp scenario? And is that why he goes after every woman he meets, calling an ‘angel’ someone who’d, finally, let him be?
I try to compare Ben with Walt Grace in John Mayer’s ‘Submarine Song’; it works. Perhaps all he wanted was his own homemade, fan-blade, one-man Submarine ride. And a mermaid who swam with him until the coast of Japan. What do you think?
I have immense respect for a Film that’s Film and not a visual rendition of a novel or a stage-to-screen adaptation of a Broadway spectacle. ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ has been adapted from a novel by John O’Brien, a man who killed himself a few years after having published it. But never does it look like a transliteration of text. Every frame looks measured, every shot seems composed and crafted, but with the roughness of a ‘capture’ – which, of course, takes us right to the aspect of performance. Cage and Shue role-play as Ben and Sera in something like a prank-camera setup. Ben reels and rambles in most scenes. He’s the man who is perfectly coherent in a state of complete cluelessness. He has fixed his destination for himself, where all he needs to do is snake his way through.
Think about Sera, who’s yet to sign the contract. She has read the terms and conditions, she loves the man. One of the decisions could be to postpone consent. Another would be to post-date it. She does neither. She signs the papers, staggers with responsibility. There are times when she drops it and asks him to see a doctor, because she has needs of her own as well, and desires for a life with him in it. This is frustration that humans are capable of – on the other side of the line that divides acceptance from want. She is human. So is he. But then, he’s one with an escape route, granted that Death gives you face-time with the Goddesses of Love, in which case Ben can still put his octopuses on the table. Sera, on the other hand, has none.
“I accepted him for who he was. And I didn’t expect him to change. I think he felt that for me too. I liked his drama. He needed me. I loved him... I loved him.”
Mike Figgis writes, directs and composes music for 'Leaving Las Vegas' - it's crazy how many uses he finds for Don Henley's version of the soul classic 'Come Rain or Come Shine.' He has control of the entire tone of the film, with camera in close cooperation. And he works a miracle in that he casts Elisabeth Shue. Vegas isn’t Queen of the Desert anymore. You’ve seen her fight men in ‘Cocktail.’ Here she fights fate itself, and is glorious in how she concedes defeat, hiding pain in the folds of her brow; and in the little teardrops she can't conceal.