“I don’t remember if I started drinking because my wife left me or my wife left me because I started drinking.”
Nicolas Cage has played quite an array of oddball characters in what has to be one of Hollywood’s most eclectic careers. But whatever your favorite might be, this is the one that earned him an Oscar. The movie also earned Elisabeth Shue her only nomination for an Oscar. While those were not the only nominations for this cult favorite film, that’s really where the money is. The film is a character study of two people on a downward spiral. The film was also nominated for two additional Oscars, but it is the acting that makes this movie somewhat exceptional.
Ben (Cage) is very good at drinking. In fact, I’ve never seen a character put away more booze in one movie before. His drinking has gotten so out of control that he’s lost his family. He becomes an embarrassment to the few people who will still give him the time of day, and soon even his most faithful friends bail. When he finally loses his job, Ben comes to the inevitable conclusion that it’s either his life or the booze. He chooses the booze. He pretty much sets his belongings on fire and sells what he can. He moves to a cheap hotel in Vegas where it is his self-professed intention to drink himself to death, a process he’s budgeted at about four weeks. It is on the street that he nearly, and literally, runs into Sera (Shue), a hooker who appears to enjoy her life on the outside, but is as empty as Ben is. She falls for Ben and invites him to move into her home. She doesn’t want to change him and attempts whatever comfort she can give and receive in the little time they likely have left. Her only rule in the relationship is that they accept each other unconditionally. The film winds its way to its inescapable conclusion.
I’m not a fan of romantic films of any kind. But this is a very different kind of a love story. There isn’t a lot of physical contact between the two. Honestly, Ben is never sober enough to have that kind of a relationship. They provide each other with comfort, each actually using the other, but to a mutual gain, of sorts. The real value of the film won’t be found in the script, the direction or even the rather sweet soundtrack that features crooner classics sung by Sting and Don Henley. The real value is the performances for the entire ride. You could take away the glitzy Vegas locations and all of the film’s other trappings and you’d still have compelling drama. Put these two alone on a bare stage and they will tell the story as effectively. It’s as simple as that. Character study fans will really like this one.
Leaving Las Vegas is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of over 40 mbps. This is the kind of transfer you look for in an older catalog title. The high-definition image presentation looks filmatic all the way through. The grain element of the original film looks perfect. You end up with plenty of detail and an overall texture that really brings back the days of watching a film instead of a video.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is just nice. The music is a big part of the presentation here, and it comes through with fine dynamic reproductions of the songs. You also have to give a lot of credit to the emotional piano work of Dave Hartley. The dialog is soft, as it was intended, but it’s captured wonderfully. You will be able to hear not only the words but the emotions behind them. It’s not a terribly aggressive surround mix, but I like its intimate nature.
This is one of those films that doesn’t really sit well with a lot of people. Over the years I’ve heard complaints about the downer quality of the material and particularly the ending. I found it to be more faithful to life than Hollywood appears usually able to deliver. Give director Mike Figgis a lot of props for staying out of the way and avoiding the usual happy ending. It would have been an incredible cheat. It never pulled it in at the box office because it was never given the right kind of buzz or a wide enough release. Still it has made its way into the popular culture, and deservedly so. If you haven’t had a chance to catch it in the nearly 20 years since its release, this is a perfect opportunity. But if you need a tidy happily ever after, try Sleeping Beauty. “I hope you understand that I am a person who is totally at ease with that. Which is not to say that I’m indifferent or I don’t care; I do.”