One for the road

Leaving Las Vegas is a pretty uncompromising look at the lives of two no-hopers loose in Las Vegas, who stumble across each other and fall in love. The two, superbly played by Nicolas Cage and Elizabeth Shue (see picture) , are a drunk and a prostitute respectively.

Their fondness for each other, gained slowly, does not redeem them in the ordinary Hollywood way. He refuses to stop drinking and makes that a condition of their relationship. She takes clients as usual and gets viciously raped. There is no conventional happy ending. But such is director Mike Figgis’s grasp of lost souls, enmeshed in a kind of purgatory of their own making, that this deeply romantic film seems neither depressing nor sentimental.

It’s the kind of project for which Figgis has been preparing himself ever since the intriguing and underrated Liebestraum — and which Mr Jones might have become had it not been so insensitively re-edited. It is almost certainly this British director’s best work to date.

Taken from a semi-autobiographical novel by John O’Brien, an alcoholic who killed himself shortly after signing the deal for the film (his father called it his suicide note), Leaving Las Vegas is made with passion and understanding. Its outstanding virtue, apart from the skill with which it is made and performed, is that it is almost entirely non-judgmental. It doesn’t approve or disapprove of these people. It simply shows them some sort of sympathy in their wretchedness.

Made in super-16mm, which has been very well blown up to 35mm and shot in only a month, Leaving Las Vegas has the kind of urgency it needs to hold its story intact. Even the episode of Shue’s obsession with Julian Sands’s Russian ponce, which might have seemed like a diversion (Figgis himself appears briefly as a Mafia heavy), is made in such a way as it seems relevant to the plot. And though the drunk’s final redemption through sex is a mite hopeful (the most impossibly romantic moment of all), the film holds together.

Las Vegas itself is painted with a sure touch, as a city where no one cares and anyone can float around drowning in their own mud. For Figgis, who has had more than his share of disappointments, this is a triumph. And about time too.

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