Thursday, March 31, 2011

NIC CAGE MONTH FINALE: Leaving Las Vegas (1995)

Director: Mike Figgis
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Elizabeth Shue

Sera: Is drinking a way of killing yourself? 
Ben Sanderson: Or, is killing myself a way of drinking?

This is one of the most gorgeous movies I’ve seen in a while. It’s full of colors, from the seductive scarlets of Nicolas Cage’s hotel room to the mesmerizing neons of Las Vegas and its various wacky characters to the bright yellows of the desert roads. It’s a movie that is full of colors to its brim, endowed with a lot of really lush, dense scenery that draws you in like a lethal intoxicant; alcohol, perhaps, as is Nic Cage’s drug throughout the movie. This is a very alcoholic movie at its core in the way that once you’re drawn in, you don’t want to leave. Like a drug, this film captivates instantly and for a long time. The scenery is coupled with a constant flow of slow, moody music that make the film look often like a warped music video. It’s actually done quite well.

So the cinematography is golden. But really, you’re not here to watch a glorified two hour music video, so how’s the story? It basically revolves around Nicolas Cage as a depressive alcoholic filmmaker who has been laid off his job. He decides to go to Las Vegas to drink himself to death, where he meets a Hooker with a Heart of Gold who helps him and who he helps in return…even if he doesn’t know he’s doing it. They’re spiraling on a path of destruction but they both really need one another, clinging for comfort. “You’re my angel,” Cage keeps saying, lost in a drunken haze. Shue puts up with all the shit he breaks, all the places he gets her kicked out of. They compromise for each other. Like a good relationship should do.

Not that their relationship is a typical one. It’s almost hyperreal, in that it is so powerful and so emotionally chained down. These people would be destroyed without each other, and when they do finally break up near the end of the film (after Cage sleeps with another prostitute), it’s clear that they are. Everyone who’s seen this movie knows that it’s about dependency, but really, if you haven’t seen it yet, you’re in for a surprise. This is a very honest and raw portrayal of a relationship – glamorized in some ways, sure; but only little touches, just to make the movie flow better. It’s dramatic, it’s destructive, it’s teary, it’s hyperreal. These people are locked in together, both with past sorrows, both needing one another more than anything else in their lives – more than water, more than food, more than air. They complete one another wholly.

So that’s enough about the story and such, how about the actors? This is probably Nicolas Cage’s highlight of his career. And it seems that everyone else agrees, too, because he won an Oscar for it. Being Cage, there are a few moments of extreme goofiness at hand. Right from the start when you see him strolling along with his sunglasses on and picking out different beers from the grocery store, you will laugh. He kind of reminds me of Hunter S. Thompson here. Maybe it’s just the sunglasses, but his callous, somewhat violent and carefree nature really reminded me of him. For the most part, though, this is a very serious and tragic performance, and Cage attacks it with a lot of heart and soul. When he smiles, you can see it; that odd, careless flare of a man who has lost everything…and when he freaks out and does something ridiculous, you feel for him, because he can’t help himself.

The real turning point with him comes when he fucks the other prostitute in Shue’s own house. I mean, how far gone are you? Look at his eyes. He’s gone, man. He’s never coming back, and he knows it. This is why he came here. It is unfortunate that he fell into such a heavy relationship, but really, he was headed for this crash-landing all along, as much as he loved Shue and as good of a guy as he may have been when he wasn’t screwing everything else up. He spends so much of the movie in a drunken stupor that you wonder how his liver doesn’t give out sooner. Watching some of these scenes, you really get a good picture of the lowest points a human being can be at. It really shows you the worst places a formerly well-established man can sink to, short of being homeless or dead. And he welcomes it with open arms, Cage does. This is the endpoint. Game over. No future anymore.

Shue’s character, Sera, is jaded and cynical on the outside. One of the most telling moments early on in the film is when Cage tells her he’ll drive her back to his hotel. She gets in the car and he asks her name, and the look of surprise on her face, subtle as it is, really shows a lot about her character. There’s this guardedness in her that you see in most prostitutes – although of course her character is a ‘movie prostitute,’ tried and true; most of the real ones probably aren’t so pretty and clean-cut. I really like the hidden delicacy and femininity she has hidden under the rock-hard exterior, and the small slivers where it does show. Like when she gives Cage his gifts when they move in together. She is a strong woman who will put up with a lot of crap. She just wanted someone to lie her head down on, someone to comfort her. It’s a shame Cage couldn’t be that for her.

Her profession is rough and not very glamorous, and she knows it, but has to keep doing it to pay the bills. She’s got it pretty damn hard. One of the more trying scenes to watch is when she gets raped by those three fratboy-jock douchebags in their stupid sports shirts in that crappy motel room. You really only see parts of it, but damn, it’s brutal, even moreso because you probably like her character so much. No one should ever be abused or hurt like this. And for an extra punch in the gut, she gets evicted right afterward. Isn’t that nice? Shue is a lot soul and it shows. Her character isn’t the most original out there, but DAMN does she ever pull it off. That goes for Cage, too; he just plays a regular old drunk. But he does it with such style that it does not matter. Goddamn, this has such great characters! So real, so passionate.

Leaving Las Vegas is an epochal film. It is truly one of those movies that says a lot with very few words. If you’ve seen it, then you know what I’m talking about; this movie is powerful. And if you haven’t, go rent it now. It’s worth your time more than…well, most Nicolas Cage movies at least. And then some. Nicolas Cage even won an Oscar for this film, which to some people might not matter, but in the end, does place Leaving Las Vegas and his performance in a very special, hallowed golden hall. Worthy of respect.

So this has been Nic Cage Month, everybody. There were bad times, there were good times. We laughed, we cried and we felt our minds go numb from confusion, mostly at Cage’s acting. We didn’t review as many Nicolas Cage films as we wanted to, but all things considered, we did an OK job. Nicolas Cage is one of those guys who you just can’t avoid. He does so much weird, crazy shit that eventually, you have to notice him, and I can just hope that this month’s reviews have served as a helpful guide.

Now. To April!