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leaving las vegas - poster

Nicolas Cage. Before he was someone whose movies you could basically dismiss upon seeing the trailer, he did put together a few good ones. Raising Arizona is a top-50 film, total Coen Brothers‘ deliciousness and a worthy view at any time. His turn in Johl Dahl‘s fascinating and little seen neo-noir Red Rock West is also quite fabulous. That leaves us with Leaving Las Vegas, his signature dramatic performance and one that has captivated me since I first saw it in 1995.

Let's get a drink!

Let’s get a drink!

Cage plays Ben Sanderson, a movie studio exec/screenwriter who has, shall we say, a penchant for the devil’s water, alcohol. He is a raging alcoholic. It literally dictates everything he does. His wife and son have left him, he loses his job, and alienates the only friends he’s got.  In a stupor, after having picked up a young hooker, he tells her, very slurred of course, “I can’t remember if my wife left me because I started drinking, or I started drinking because my wife left me.” So that’s the set-up. After losing his job, Ben decides to sell everything he’s got left that he can sell, burn the rest, and move out to Las Vegas where he plans to drink himself to death.

That was a red light. I walk, you stop. You sorry?

That was a red light. I walk, you stop. You sorry?

While in Vegas, Ben meets Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a hooker with whom he forms a special bond, one of respect and mutual understanding. After her pimp Yuri (Julian Sands) is removed from the picture by Russian mobsters, Sera asks Ben to move in with her so she can keep a watchful eye on him.  He has but one rule:

And so, they set off on the unpredictable road of a drunk and a prostitute living together, attracted to each other for different reasons, to its inevitable, depressing end.

leaving las veas - ben and sera

You’re like some kind of antidote that mixes with the liquor…

This film is one of the more depressing things I’ve watched, but I can’t help but to revisit it time and again. The performances of both Cage (which won him the Golden Globe and Oscar) and Shue (for which she was nominated for Golden Globe and Oscar and won the Independent Spirit Award) are powerhouses and unlike any other role they’ve taken and are a big reason I do come back to watch it again. I think Shue‘s performance was the best of 1995 and one of the strongest of the decade. It’s a shame she hasn’t gotten more work like this, although I am glad she was in Hamlet 2.

This movie was based on the novel of the same name written by John O’Brien, himself an incorrigible drunk who committed suicide before the film was made. This story is really his story as it mirrored his life in many ways. It’s shame, really, as I enjoyed the novel as well as the two that were released posthumously, Stripper Lessons and The Assault on Tony’s.

So if you’re ever in a dark spot and need a movie to make you see how bad your life really isn’t, give this a chance. Or if you just want to see two really great performances from actors you may not expect them from, click it on.

This film streams on Amazon, Netflix and iTunes.

Here’s the trailer: