It is trite to begin with an introduction about the mercurial brilliance of Nicholas Cage. It is worth it, though, because there is a tiresome tendency to regard the man as a kind of risible construct, a phenomenon – or worse, a meme – whose patchy and occasionally downright dubious filmography has, unfortunately, obscured his considerable talents as an actor: “Not the bees!” and so on. At its worst, this appreciation for Cage usually manifests itself with an ironically raised eyebrow and a smirk.
Of course, this is merely one kind of appreciation for such a kaleidoscopic actor. Indeed, what makes Cage so fascinating – and misunderstood – is his promiscuous plundering of roles. Where to start? In one day of idle channel surfing you may see him in Face/Off, impersonating John Travolta with far more verve than Travolta could ever muster for impersonating Cage. Or you may see him in Kaufman’s Adaptation, playing twins, of whom one is a hyper-aware screenwriter who’s enmeshed in his own neuroses and the other a breezy would-be screenwriter who embraces all the formulas and “commandments” of screenwriting, of which the other is witheringly disdainful of. Or you may see him in Con Air, with his fittingly ludicrous hair, trying to get that bunny back in the box.
Or you may – or rather, you should – see him in Leaving Las Vegas. What people sometimes forget about Cage is the fact that he is so willing to reveal all kinds of facets of himself on screen, no matter how odd or pathetic or comical or brilliant or bizarrely compelling or just plain bad they end up being. The word is chucked about too lightly, but Nicholas Cage is fearless. It is why he is, in the right hands, an undeniably great actor.
Mike Figgis’ effort has lost none of its heartbreaking power. It takes a good quarter hour for the opening credits to unfurl along the gaudy neon of Las Vegas and yet we have already witnessed so much sadness: Ben’s (Cage) career as a Hollywood screenwriter is coming to an end because of his inexorable drinking. It is a destructive opening that wears its heart on the faces of his colleagues as they look at him. A severance package and a burning picture establish two things: the first is that he is going to Las Vegas to drink himself to death; and the second is that he had a family.
It is in Las Vegas where he meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a smart, caring and likable prostitute behind whatever mask she has to wear for her pimp’s clients. Commendably, after boldly dispensing with the pimp rather early on, the relationship between Ben and Sera becomes the focus.
It is unfair to spend so much time analysing Cage and not Shue, because their performances – it feels so clichéd, but so right to put it like this – are two sides of the same coin. They see something in each other’s suffering that goes vastly beyond a client-prostitute transaction. Of course, this may seem dreadfully insipid: the tragic whore with the heart of gold finds the tragic alcoholic and they strike up a sincere and heartbreaking relationship. Plus the fact that words such as “tragic” and “heartbreaking” are more apt to make people role their eyes because they are generally used for any piddling piece of maudlin cinema rather than for genuinely tragic and heartbreaking cinema such as this.
Their performances are superb and sad and grim, more or less all at once and with little relief. The ultimatum that Ben, in one of his more of lucid moments, gives Sera illustrates unambiguously where this film is going: “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.” Lesser talents would recoil from such material but Figgis is unrelenting.
The term “dysfunctional relationship” has one of its more literal incarnations in Ben and Sera. And yet, amid all the drinking, suffering, and heartbreak, there are moments, not as lofty as hope, but of fleeting beauty. Look at Ben’s face when Sera asks him to stay over, not for sex but for companionship. It is a moment of rare and genuine joy, which is impressive for a man whose sole linearity every day is to drink himself beyond redemption. And for Sera, it is a respite where she can simply be herself. In one of her monologues, delivered to a therapist we never see, she tells us, sobbing, that she loved Ben. Ultimately, they met each other when they really needed someone. It is no accident when Ben calls Sera an angel.
What a brave and essential film this is. If you have yet to see it, please make time for it.
Dir: Mike Figgis
Scr: Mike Figgis
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Elisabeth Shue, Julian Sands
Prd: Lila Cazès, Annie Stewart
DOP: Declan Quinn
Music: Mike Figgis
Run Time: 112 minutes
Leaving Las Vegas is out on DVD and Blu-ray now