The Hangover this is not. For those of you young enough to only know Nicolas Cage as that inscrutable leading man from such recent bombs as Knowing or Season of the Witch, prepare to think twice. And for those of you who remember fondly those superb action larks, like Face/Off and The Rock, make sure you haven’t overlooked this transcendent achievement. Nicolas Cage earned his Oscar for this harrowing tale of a man looking to die in Sin City.
Ben Sanderson (Cage) is a screenwriter who has been left by his wife, with their child in tow. Alcohol and inappropriate attempts to get laid seem to prove the best remedies, until they get him fired. With nothing left to live for and no desire to go on, Sanderson heads to Vegas with the firm intention of drinking until he dies. While there, he meets a hooker (Elisabeth Shue, Oscar-nominated for the role) and they embark on a strange relationship that’s undeniably beautiful, insofar as a gritty tragedy that unfolds in the underbelly of the world can be. As she rummages through the dumpster of his soul looking for hope, they both move to the horrific final act that promises to imprint an emotional scar on any viewer.
The film is from a book by John O’Brien, who committed suicide early into production. Mike Figgis, who earned Oscar nods for both writing and directing, decided to complete the film anyway and the result is as hard to watch as it is to process. Cage is undoubtedly at his best, creating a compelling character with a full arc, who is amazingly never sober during the course of the film. In the mythos of the picture, Cage supposedly binge drank and filmed himself to prepare for the role, while Shue spent time conversing with hookers on the streets of Vegas. Lovable Shue is also at her career best, two years before The Saint, after which she unfortunately drifted into relative obscurity.
Masterful as the film is, commenting on Leaving Las Vegas is hard to do. It simply is what it is, as real and uncompromising a story as there can be. The problem with these films is that they garner rampant critical acclaim, and are usually ignored by everyone but a small segment of the movie-going population who are still loyal to their small-town indie theater. Leaving Las Vegas was made for an incredible $3.6 million and thankfully broke the mold, proving a commercial success. Figgis valiantly utilized the favored guerrilla filmmaking tactics of the pure independent world. Some of the longer tracking shots on the streets of Vegas were done in one take, simply so that they could avoid police notice and dodge shooting permit fees.
This refreshing rebelliousness has defined the work of all the great indie auteurs. Before Catherine Hardwicke became the impaired director of Twilight and Red Riding Hood, she was a courageous artist who saw the disturbingly breathtaking Thirteen through to completion by stealing shots to stretch a $1.5 million budget. In the 1990s, Rodriguez, Tarantino, and Soderbergh heralded a Renaissance for Hollywood that exchanged expensive schlock in a poor economic climate with quality films that cost comparatively nothing.
Cage dared to be ugly, which has always been a magnet for awards. In a Hollywood obsessed with looks and types, someone willing to put on a fake nose (Nicole Kidman), take on a disability (too many to pick), or be just plain unattractive (Charlize Theron in the aptly titled and largely ignored Monster) is respected as an artist. These are also truly incredible performances, but it is strange to think that Hollywood is the one industry in America where "shortcomings" are revered, as long as they’re only temporary.
Blu-ray Bonus Features
Nothing but the trailer, though the film itself is an Uncut/Unrated version. This trend is truly nauseating. There are very few movies anyone would actually want to see more of. In very few cases are the reintroduced scenes exemplary, usually eliciting an indifferent reaction. At worst, they start to make one look at the time to see how much longer of the “artist’s original vision” is left. Let’s face it, things are cut for a reason, and usually it’s a good one. This movie was perfect the first time around.
"Leaving Las Vegas" is on sale April 14, 2011 and is not rated. Drama. Written and directed by Mike Figgis. Starring Elisabeth Shue, Nicolas Cage.