There's something of a primal power to Leaving Las Vegas, writer-director Mike Figgis' pitch-black fable of self-destruction, adapted from the John O'Brien novel. Say what you will about it (its romance is ridiculously implausible, the story borders on misogyny, the narrative lurches forward...drunkenly?) but the film is provocative, no question. Figgis puts a desperate drunk front and center and demands we deal with him and the Jungian shadow he casts. We all know something of despair and the self-destructive impulse: under the right circumstances, mightn't any of us find ourselves spilling over the cliff?
In his Oscar-winning role, Nicolas Cage plays Hollywood executive Ben Sanderson, whose late-stage alcoholism has made his career untenable. He's not surprised when he's let go; it's merely the next step in his process of resignation to death, and he plainly states to his boss that he'll move to Las Vegas. There, he merrily stocks up on liquor to hasten his demise. When a prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue) catches his drunken eye, Ben requests her company and bluntly explains, "I came here to drink myself to death." Sera finds herself strangely drawn to this pathetic lost soul, and she immediately moves into his waning life. Ben gladly accepts this new presence in his life, but he makes clear that the rules demand her libertarian compassion: "You can never, never ask me to stop drinking. Do you understand?" Early and often, he makes it equally clear that he will not judge or try to change Sera, though he is as sad to see her go off to work as she is to see him spiral out of control and into painful drunken abysses.
Obviously, there's a sickness to this codependence, but one could also call it unconditional love. For Ben, there is simply no turning back: he has committed to slow suicide (for reasons considered irrelevant and left ambiguous), and his commitment to Sera is a short-term one but, for him, a profound one. It's certainly much more difficult to understand what Sera sees in this impotent, bull-in-a-china-shop drunk and the doomed relationship he offers her. Figgis asks for a certain amount of suspension of disbelief here, but also hints at some plausible reasons for the love even Sera doesn't understand: animal magnetism to Ben's underlying charm (drowned though it tends to be), Ben's total disinterest in judging her, Sera's maternal instinct to care for the sick (her name suggests angelic "seraphim"). The two mirror each other in their hopeless emotional need, and the mirroring of Sera's prostitution to Ben's alcoholism implicitly defines it as her own self-destruction (as such, an arguably gratuitious sexual assault sequence comes awkwardly close to implying that, by accepting her career, Sera was "asking for" rape).
By design, Leaving Las Vegas is sordid, unpleasant, and even maddening. But by exploring this particular circle of hell on Earth, Figgis does achieve a certain "there but for the grace of God go I" catharsis. The brand of compassion the lovers show to one another makes for a capital-R romance, but in real-life terms, it's madness: with friends like these, who needs enemies? Unfortunately, real life also teaches us that not everyone can be saved from his demons: for some, hitting bottom has no rebound.In the end, what could be nothing more than Oscar bait is bearable for its gritty photography (shot, wisely on 16mm) and intimate performances. Though Cage robbed Sean Penn (superior in Dead Man Walking) of the Oscar, Cage displays his typical fearlessness in essaying the near-gone alcoholic, and scene for scene, the also-nominated Shue makes Sera almost credible. Even if it's half-baked Bukowski, Figgis' film doesn't flinch in its progression past The Lost Weekend and Days of Wine and Roses. Some parents may want to consider Leaving Las Vegas as the alcoholic companion piece to the DMV's infamous Red Asphalt; then again, Red Asphalt never made the mistake of including a naked, bourbon-soaked Elisabeth Shue to cushion its blows.
MGM's Blu-ray debut for Leaving Las Vegas is budget-priced for a reason: the negligible improvements hi-def can offer and a lack of bonus features. Aside from a bit of print damage, the hi-def transfer of Leaving Las Vegas is true to the filmmaker's intent: given the 16mm photography, there's only some much picture information available to add detail in hi-def. The image tends to be soft and lack depth, and if MGM can be faulted for not striking a new hi-def transfer, it can at least be commended for not meddling digitally to boost the image. Colors are seemingly true to the source, and contrast is more than adequate. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is mostly adept at filling out the music, though the rear channels are engaged for a bit of ambience. The disc's sole extra is the theatrical trailer in hi-def.
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