Movie Project #7: Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]
Director: Mike Figgis
Screenplay: Mike Figgis
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Romance
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Running Time: 111 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I heard this is one of the greatest films about alcoholism, a subject I have always found fascinating. I have also heard many great things about Nicolas Cage’s performance.

Accolades: Four Oscar nominations (one win for Best Actor), four Golden Globe nominations (one win for Best Actor), total of 29 wins and 19 nominations from multiple awards outlets

“I don’t know if my wife left me because of my drinking or I started drinking ’cause my wife left me.”

That one line perfectly encapsulates the life of Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), an alcoholic screenwriter who lost control of himself long ago. After getting fired from his job, Ben decides to travel to Las Vegas to “drink himself to death.” A rather generous severance check allows him to do as he pleases in Vegas, and he continues to consume seemingly endless amounts of booze. Beer, vodka, tequila, whiskey… you name it, Ben will drink it.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

It is in Vegas where Ben meets another sad soul, a prostitute named Sera (Elizabeth Shue). The two of them immediately bond over their shortcomings, and both seem willing to overlook the other’s major faults. It isn’t entirely clear what draws the two of them together, other than both are incredibly lonely and desperate to find someone to care for them. Truth be told, there really isn’t a whole lot that they can do for each other. At one point, after Ben tells Sera that he cares about her, he makes a point to say, “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.”

Sarah’s reply? “I know.”

And so goes this tragic tale. There is a strange affection between these two characters, even though their relationship seems doomed from the start. After all, can a hooker really help a drunk, or vice versa? Yet even though this is a bizarre couple, their relationship is completely believable.

Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

This credit completely and undeniably goes to Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue, both of whom have delivered arguably the best performances of their careers. Their chemistry is perfected to the point of absurdity, with each expertly portraying someone who has essentially hit rock bottom. There are others in the cast — such as Julian Sands as Sera’s brute of a pimp, or Ben’s old colleagues played by Richard Lewis and Steven Weber — but this is very much a two-person show. Cage won an Oscar for his performance, and I’m willing to forgive his last decade of shoddy work based simply on this alone. It’s that good.

Leaving Las Vegas was filmed on a very small budget, which paved the way for Mike Figgis to direct, write the screenplay and compose its music. He filmed most of the scenes on location with Super 16 cameras, and as a result the film has a very personal, authentic feel to it. His overtly jazzy soundtrack may be a bit too much at times, but it does fit in with the overall bleak, downtrodden nature of the movie.

As far as films about alcoholism go, this is one of the better ones I have seen. Leaving Las Vegas is painstakingly depressing, but its authentic nature hits all the right notes.


36 thoughts on “Movie Project #7: Leaving Las Vegas [1995]

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Cage is a revelation in this movie and owns it every step of the way. Shue is amazing too, but it’s Cage who really holds the fort down and continues to make this movie an amazing, emotionally grueling trip into alcoholism, that I will never, ever forget. Good review Eric.

  2. Alex Withrow says:

    Nice review here man. This is one of my favorite films ever, and, in my opinion, the best depiction of alcoholism ever captured. Really knocks the wind out of me every time I watch it. Glad you were a fan of Cage and Shue’s work… they really went all in with this one.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Thanks man. I don’t know if this is something I could watch often, but it’s definitely one of the better films about alcoholism I have seen. Can’t agree more about Cage and Shue — two incredible performances right there. Glad they both got Oscar nods.

  3. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I always try to watch this to remind myself what a great actor Cage once was. I really wish he hired a better casting agent, back in the late 80s and early 90s he really was on fire.

  4. ruth says:

    I should give this a watch, I mean this is the last time Nic Cage actually bothered to act right? Wasn’t Shue also nominated for an Oscar for this? Interesting how their careers have become since.

  5. Dan Heaton says:

    Nice job, Eric. I originally saw this in the theaters, and I remember being knocked out by the lead performances. I’ve read a decent amount of backlash over the years, so I wondered how my impressions would change if I saw it again. From your review and many of the comments, it sounds like my first impression was pretty accurate.

  6. jackdeth72 says:

    Hi, Eric and company:

    ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ is Cage’s best, most unhindered work.

    Though the ‘Supermarket Sweep’ scene at the liquor store didn’t set with me. The lushes I’ve known through the years have only stuck with one brand and type of poison as Cirrhosis sets in.

    Cage goes places and wallows in desperation reserved for Jack Lemmon . While Ms. Shue bares her soul and her flaws as few before. High marks all the way around!

  7. John says:

    Great review, Eric. And you’re spot-on that it’s an accurate depiction of alcoholism. Or at least, a certain kind of alcoholism- the “throw it all away” brand.

    When I was 22, this was my favorite movie… and I haven’t seen it since then (which was 14 years ago). I owe it a re-watch.

      • John says:

        Yeah, I’ve always had a perverse fascination with the whole hopeless alcoholic cliché. I’d also add that I wasn’t much of a movie nerd back then, either, so it was my favorite out of a very mediocre lot.

        Hell, even now, my favorite is about a hopeless alcoholic- The Fire Within.

        • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

          I feel the same way — alcoholism and drug addiction have always fascinated me for some reason. Many of my favorite films are about one or the other. Hell, Bukowski is one of my favorite writers, so it translates to the literature world as well.

          I’m going to have to check out The Fire Within.

  8. Anders says:

    Remember watching so a long time ago, and it is still one of the most hard-hitting drug/alco-movies I’ve seen. Requiem for a Dream is more psychadelic / “fantastic”, but this one is more realistic with a terrible, but very personal view of how alcohol and depression really can kill someone from the inside out.

    It is also a warm movie, when the depression doesn’t take over, and the chemistry between Cage and Shue is great. Have to repeat the question; what happened to Cage (and Shue?) after this movie?!

    Great review as always man! 🙂

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Thanks man! Always happy when you stop by. I like that you call this a “warm” movie, that’s a very apt description. I wish I knew what happened to Cage/Shue after this — so disappointing after such phenomenal performances.

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