There’s something of a legendary quality to Las Vegas, given its history and its massive role in contemporary culture. Big wins, big losses, big loves. Quick, drunken weddings and tarnished reputations, the casino city of shimmering lights is probably on the bucket list of plenty an individual, for whatever reason. In the face of so many films based in this shining location, especially comedies concerning hangovers, the 1995 film, Leaving Las Vegas, brings a poignancy to the screen, with heartfelt performances by Nicolas Cage and Elisabeth Shue.
Leaving Las Vegas is based on the somewhat autobiographical book by John O’Brien, who incidentally committed suicide not long after signing away the film rights to his book. Knowing this fact before watching the film sort of equips audiences with at least a bit of preparation for the gritty (and at times downright raw) nature of what they’re about to witness.
Nicolas Cage plays the role of Ben Sanderson, a Hollywood screenwriter whose alcoholism sees him losing not only his job, but his family and friends as well. With little to nothing left to live for, Sanderson decides to drink himself to death in Vegas, something he will easily be able to do thanks to the sizable severance package he attains from his boss. One early morning, he drives all the way from his LA home down to Vegas, drinking on the way. Upon arrival in Vegas, he almost slams into a woman on the sidewalk, Sera.
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The film focuses on the relationship between Ben and Sera, who happens to be a prostitute working for an abusive pimp, known as Yuri Butsov. The two agree to accept each other the way they are, with Ben insisting that Sera never ask him to stop drinking, and Sera asking Ben to not judge or criticize her occupation. For a while, all is well and the couple coexist quite happily, but before long they begin to get annoyed with each other’s behaviour, and start to deliberately act out in order to provoke one another.
Final Thoughts and Awards
Leaving Las Vegas isn’t one of those films beset with action-scenes and violence, but instead one that hones in on the beautifully complicated nature of human relationships and how, sometimes, the person you least expected to show up when they did, is the one person you actually needed to. The self-destructive behaviour of Cage’s character, and the overall evocativeness of the film, are made all the more poignant by means of the film being shot in super 16mm, which is quite common for art house films, as opposed to the more mainstream movies filmed in 35mm film. One could argue, of course, that Leaving Las Vegas works well as an art house movie, especially considering the tragic ending to the author of the book. In spite of a limited budget, the film fared exceptionally well at the box office, with Nicolas Cage winning the Academy Award for Best Actor, as well as a Golden Globe, and Elisabeth Shue earning an Independent Spirit Award for the Best Female Lead.
All in all, Leaving Las Vegas is certainly a film worth checking off your list, especially if you’re in the mood for something of a heartfelt, dialogue-rich story instead of an action-packed rom-com. The film is one of those that leaves a lasting impression, and definitely calls for a few tissues towards the end.