Leaving Las Vegas, directed by Mike Figgis and based on the autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, is an emotional story about an alcoholic who rejects life and wants to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, and an unselfish prostitute who loves him the way he is. Ben, played by Nicholas Cage, was a former movie producer in Los Angeles and has obviously crumbled in the glamour world of Hollywood which is shown in the opening scene. Here Ben is already an alcoholic when he disturbs former colleagues that are embarrassed of his appearance at the restaurant. Ben is unstable and a mess when one of the men give him money and tell him not to contact him again. Ben then gets fired and ultimately decides to drink himself to death in Las Vegas, a city constructed on greed, crime and moral negligence.
We are never certain of the cause of Ben’s alcoholism, especially when he says “I don’t remember if I started drinking because my wife left me, or my wife left me because I started drinking.” In a last attempt and hope of human interaction, Ben pays the hooker Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, 500 dollars to spend a night with him. Sera is magically attracted to the loser type of man, as Figgis shows us with her boyfriend Yuri, her abusive pimp and boyfriend. This drama is about the absolute love between two people that live on society’s border who need each other to know that they exist. In this movie, much emphasis is placed on simplicity, spontaneity and directness, so we can focus on the true story without being distracted from the normal every day routines these characters have.
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A degree of realism is achieved in this movie, because the fact remains that Ben is an alcoholic, although he does drink in extremes where the normal human being would be unconscious, and Sera is a prostitute, so the intense situations and decisions in this movie are reasonably depicted. One of the first scenes is an extreme long shot of the city of Las Vegas, because this sinful city was very carefully chosen as the setting of the story to preserve realism. Full shots are often used to show the protagonists on their daily routine, such as when Ben goes shopping at the supermarket for liquor. Figgis mainly used multiple shots to emphasize the two protagonist’s interactions with each other. The two shot and the over-the-shoulder shot were used often to build a situation or emotion between the two characters before usually going over to a close up to highlight how each character reacts by their facial expressions. The director mainly used eye level shots, to leave it up to the audience to judge the two main characters of the movie, although certain power struggles in the film are shown from high angles to illustrate someone dominating a conversation or argument.
Figgis also uses some point of view shots to show the imbalance during Ben’s drunken periods where the camera is placed at an oblique angle to show tension and approaching movements. The images in the film are in high contrast with streaks of blackness and harsh shafts of light to underline the dramatic events that occur. When it comes to the editing, Figgis mainly used cutting to continuity to preserve the fluidity of most events without the necessity to show them all. The director also uses flash-forwards a few times to give you an idea about the destiny of Sera, which is shown when she reflects about her encounter with Ben to an invisible therapist.
Figgis also shot the movie using Super 16 mm film to give it a tense, documentary feel. The music is also very unique because the jazzy soundtrack isn’t the usual music in a movie with such an emotional and dramatic plot. The actors have a great impact on the success of this movie because the extremely difficult roles were played by excellent actor stars. The story is done very well because it starts off showing us the situation of the two main characters as they are and as the will be throughout the movie, which is finally realized when Ben tells Sera: “You can never, ever, ask me to stop drinking.” Figgis begins the story leaving us without prejudice over the two characters because we have no idea about why Ben’s wife left him and why he is an alcoholic as well as to why Sera is a pimp-dependant hooker. We are left no possibility to judge their past so we can concentrate on their future. The movie has no real climax, we are narrated through the story by Sera talking to us as if we were her therapist and she was opening up to us about her relationship with Ben, and she tells us that there is basically no happy end.
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Leaving Las Vegas is a realistic narrative because it portrays a slice of the life of these two characters. In terms of ideology, Leaving Las Vegas is implicit, because the protagonists represent people that live on society’s borders and they allow us to make our own judgment on how we reflect on the story. Normally we are shown reasons for the characters to be in such desperate positions, but Figgis does not give us any sentiment for the character, but gives us the opportunity to wish for a better future for the couple, even though we know this will not happen. They are together because they are desperate and need each other to witness each other’s existence. We are never told why an intelligent prostitute would ever take such an alcoholic in or why Ben wants to drink himself to death.
We also are never given an alternative, just how the situation is and will be which Sera accentuates at the end of the movie: “We both realized that we didn’t have that much time and I accepted him for who he was and I didn’t expect him to change and I think he felt that for me too.” Although most people would call this a love story between the two, I believe that Sera was really the dependent one and he just gave her security in her very dangerous life, which is illustrated when Sera kicks Ben out after he cheated on her and then Sera is raped by the college guys in a hotel room. This shows the audience that she depended on Ben and he gave her security and comfort. Leaving Las Vegas is a very sad but realistic movie that leaves us moved and frustrated because there is no resolution to the story. It gives us no insight on why the characters were put in this position and why they would even end up being together if they know there will be no happy end. I don’t think it is a movie about love, just a slice of the lives of the two as it happens during that period.
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Ben is an alcoholic and because of the amount he is drinking, he can not be fully aware of his actions and decisions about what is going on around him. Sera is just a prostitute that loves having control over her clients and has gone through a lot of abuse and out of desperation takes in any guy that treats her humanely. In return for Ben’s loving, Sera slips in the role of the prostitute at the end when she pours liquor over her breasts and lets Ben lick it off fulfilling his greatest fantasy. The story is very slow at times and is not suitable for every audience. For some, it may be too vulgar, for others just too boring, but I believe Figgis and both actors did remarkable jobs. The story is obviously not meant to entertain or to be the typical Hollywood romance drama, but to show Sera and Ben’s relationship leading to isolation, anxiety and self-destruction because life does not always have a happy end..