Though alcoholism is a serious disease, its portrayal at the movies is often treacly, where life-threatening drinking problems can be cured in the space of a montage (“Crazy Heart”) or worse. “It’s all wonderfully romantic, especially in the movies,” the late great Roger Ebert wrote of the silver screen alcoholism, “where a little groaning in the morning replaces nausea, headaches, killer hangovers and panic attacks.” Of course, Mr. Ebert was rather famously an alcoholic, one who stopped drinking in 1979, as he outlined in his invaluable piece in the last years of his life. Mr. Ebert also was a great champion of Mike Figgis’ 1995 film about an alcoholic who drinks himself to death, “Leaving Las Vegas.” He called it a “masterpiece.” He named it the best film of 1995. Perhaps I’m overstepping my bounds but it’s not difficult to wonder if Mr. Ebert saw in “Leaving Las Vegas”, in the plight of Nicolas Cage’s Ben, a road (thankfully) not taken. “Most alcoholics continue to drink as long as they can,” Ebert wrote. “For many, that means death. Unlike drugs in most cases, alcohol allows you to continue your addiction for what's left of your life, barring an accident. The lucky ones find their bottom, and surrender.” Ben does find his bottom and he does surrender, though the waving of his white flag takes a different form.
After a table-setting sequence in Los Angeles, Ben comes to Las Vegas with the express mission of drinking himself to death. And the film does not skimp on this mission. He gets the shakes, hallucinates, injures and embarrasses himself, the whole nine yards. And the Vegas of Figgis’s film is not the tourist’s life; it’s the seedy side. Not the underbelly, mind you, but the side, like you feel as if the camera is always catching everything in Sin City that you’d be seeing just around corner or down that alley where you don’t want to look. The soundtrack underscores this vibe. Perhaps the saxophone sounds cheesy, even dated to 2015 ears, but that’s just right. No high-priced soundtrack would do; this is the soundtrack of a beggar on the corner playing jazz for your nickels.
Yet as dark as all that sounds, as realistic as its portrayal of an alcoholic’s descent is, there is a strange romantic grandeur. Ben, understand, is not romanticized, but the film also wishes to at least look toward the sunny side of the street from the dark side across the way. When Ben arrives at his hotel, it’s not the MGM Grand, it’s The Hole You’re In, and as he reads the sign and figures out the pun, he smiles. He sees the humor in it. He sees the humor in life. Cage acknowledges the complications in his character. There are moments in this film when you catch a glimpse of the Ben he most likely once was; kind, even charming. When he’s fired his boss, you can tell his boss likes him, feels sorry for him, but has no choice. Perhaps he knows Ben needs help but perhaps he knows Ben is long past the point of help. It’s time to step aside.
The story turns when he meets Sera. She’s a hooker, though her heart is not exactly woven from gold. It is battered and bruised even if, in periodic conversations throughout the film with a therapist (never seen), she cops to a good feeling from her profession, a feeling of control. Of course, she is also controlled by her pimp (Julian Sands), who is smartly moved out of the picture, as she enters Ben’s life, first accidentally and then deliberately. She comes to care for him but she’s not there just to take care of him. She’s granted her own off screen life, one that unintentionally merges with Ben’s, as if by divine intervention. Maybe it is as she transforms into an approximation of an angel called upon to watch over him, to meet him on his earthly departure. That might sound maudlin, but it’s not, the film never pandering, because its characters never pander, because they look one another in the eye and embrace their respective realities, which is a helluva lot more than you can say about a lotta people who likely fancy themselves more in touch than these two.
If movies often revolve around identity, finding it, losing it, changing it, re-claiming it, there is little in the way of an Identity Crisis in “Leaving Las Vegas.” These two people are who they are, entirely accepting of the other person’s flaws, uninterested in forcing the other to correct those flaws. Movies, of course, are not ordinarily meant to be this way because movies are supposed to chronicle some perceptible change in their characters. But that's only because so many movie characters are engaged in some sort of self-deception. “Leaving Las Vegas”, bless its soul, is a movie where no one engages in self-deception. The only moment when that does not hold true is Sera asking Ben to stop drinking. But look at the sorrowful way Shue plays the scene, and listen to the meekness in her voice when she makes the plea; she knows she's lying to herself by asking, and yet she asks anyway. And because she grasps her willful, and useless, delusion, it becomes the movie's most tragic moment.
Of course, if there is no change then that means we are simply watching an alcoholic waste away with a hooker at his side. And this is true. It's a slow descent into death, a fulfilling of Ben's quest, the anti-hero's journey. It's not easy to watch, but it's also affecting to watch, if only because in coming together Ben and Sera find, as Ebert noted, “a measure of grace” in one another. In its own weird, twisted, fascinating, beautiful way, it's as moving an explication of selflessness as a motion picture has ever captured.
That's not to say these people are good people, in a traditional sense. They have made bad decisions, perhaps, a bounty of them, but “Leaving Las Vegas” understands the difference between those decisions and their innate human nature. It sees past their respective trails of destruction without denying or softening what they have done, and, by the end, that familiar glow has nothing to do with sin city neon and everything to do with the fractured light of Ben and Sera's souls.