When Nicolas Cage delivers, he delivers with a punch. His true ability and dedication to his craft is often overshadowed by his rather inconsistent choice of films and characters. Admiring Cage’s work in films such as Adaptation and Matchstick Men, I was always eager to see Leaving Las Vegas, the film that won him an academy award and critical recognition. After we witness the damage his addiction has done to his career and relationships, alcoholic screenwriter Ben Anderson travels to Las Vegas with the intention of never leaving alive. The darkness of this story is set up automatically as we watch Cage drinking himself into unimaginable states. The upbeat attitude of his character contrasts this horror and makes him seem simply sad. He is a truly tragic character; prepared and determined to end his life through a blinding haze of vodka and tequila. Cage filmed himself drunk in order to prepare for the role and also spent time with hospitalised alcoholics. This in-depth approach to his performance pays off and Cage himself is almost unrecognisable beneath the layers that he adds to Ben Sanderson. Here, he makes the memory of Con Air and Knowing seem incredibly faint and distant. This complex and woeful character’s true loneliness only fully comes to light when he meets another character. Sera is a Las Vegas prostitute; just as isolated, just as tragic.
Sera’s story is shown not only through her time spent with Ben in the narrative but through clips of therapy sessions with a therapist who is never made visible. This technique allows the filmmakers to let us into Sera’s soul and mind. Her character is so twisted and broken that there seems to be a need, outside of the plot, to explain her inner character further. The therapy sessions are used carefully and gently – complementing the narrative and shaping Sera for the audience. These sessions remind the audience that Sera is a human-being and bluntly displays the damage that her profession has done to her spirit and outlook. Sera is the most frustrating character in this story. Ben has made up his mind about his future from the introduction of the film. Sera always seems to have a slight hope, this makes her even more interesting and frustrating. Elisabeth Shue is beautiful. Rarely an actress’ appearance is so crucial to her character, but here Sera is almost angelic in appearance but plagued with demons underneath. She is Ben’s saviour. He describes her as his “angel” at one point and her holy presence in his life is crucial to this spiritual story.
The pain and bitterness of human loneliness has rarely been displayed this clearly. Cage and Shue bring out the best in each other’s performances and their characters and their flaws combine to form one ugly, tragic interpretation of a suffering human soul. The hideousness of the human race is expressed constantly in Leaving Las Vegas. We betray, we disappoint and we neglect. If Leaving Las Vegas leaves you with any kind of comfort and happiness, it is in the knowledge that despite our ability to harm and destroy, this is always outweighed by our urgency to love, heal and protect.
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