Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

(On Cable TV, August 2016) While Nicolas Cage’s stature as a dramatic actor has fallen tremendously in the past few years, it’s useful to go back to Leaving Las Vegas to remind ourselves of how good he could be when provided with a good script, an attentive director and enough opportunities to show what he could do. Here, he plays a washed-up screenwriter whose alcohol problems have led to divorce, ostracism and, in the film’s first few minutes, a self-imposed exile to Las Vegas where he intends to drink himself to death. This, as the film quickly points out, is not a matter of hours but weeks. There’s one complication in his plan: the appearance of Elizabeth Shue as an escort who finds common ground with him. Their relationship evolves into a spectacularly dysfunctional mess of co-dependency, twisted affection, impossible rules and headlong rush to self-destruction. The ending is not uplifting, but it’s entirely appropriate. Writer/director Mike Figgis (working from a novel) shoots the film using low-grain super-16 stock, lending a muddy quality to the images that works in the film’s unpolished favour. Leaving Las Vegas, given its downbeat nature and harsh scenes of humiliation and pain, is not an easy movie to love—but it’s easy to respect and it plays well even twenty years later, especially as a reminder of Nicolas Cage at the height of his dramatic capabilities. Given his propensity to take up roles in direct-to-video thrillers and the disappearance of adult thrillers from the Hollywood landscape, I don’t think we’ll ever see anything quite like this from him ever again.

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