Elisabeth Shue and Nicolas Cage, in 'Leaving Las Vegas'

Dir. Mike Figgis
(1995, Not Rated, 112 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

When Leaving Las Vegas is about alcoholic Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage), it’s remarkable. When it’s about his relationship with Sin City prostitute Sera (Elisabeth Shue), it’s very good. When it’s about Sera, I’m not so sure. The scenes of her working-girl struggles — from her abusive pimp to a trick gone bad — feel like they’re right out of the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold movie handbook, and the film so quickly initiates their mutually desperate relationship that it’s not exactly clear what draws her to him. There are confessional scenes where she discusses Ben and her job, but we never find out who she’s talking to. They seem like therapy sessions, but it’s unlikely Sera has invested in her mental health. They jut into the film like tacked-on internal monologues intended to clarify what should already be clear.

Ben doesn’t have any internal monologues. He doesn’t need them. The film opens with a fifteen-minute prologue set in Los Angeles that shows us not only his drunken debauchery but the looks of discomfort, compassion, and anger from friends, strangers, and coworkers. Some are more generous than they need to be; when he’s finally fired, we can tell it’s been a long time coming, and his boss’s eyes seem to say, “I just can’t do it anymore.”

Cage, in an extraordinary performance that won him the Oscar, plays more than the stumble-and-mumble physicality of drunkenness; he shows the oblivion in the eyes; the there-but-not-there vacantness of expression; the sad, lonely helplessness. He loves Sera because she won’t try to stop him from drinking himself to death and therefore can’t push her away. She loves him because he is too dependent on her to leave. There’s nothing noble about what she does for him, and she knows it; there may be no way to save him from himself, but she’s not interested in saving him. She just wants him for as long as she can have him, until his body finally gives in.