Leaving Las Vegas (Blu-ray)
Directed by Mike Figgis
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 112 minutes
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English; Dolby Digital 2.0 Spanish, French
Subtitles: SDH, Spanish, French
MSRP: $ 19.99
Release Date: April 14, 2011
Review Date: May 16, 2011
Watching someone commit slow suicide on screen before your eyes can be cathartic or excruciating. In the case of Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, it’s a little bit of both. It’s one long, slow, torturous walk toward oblivion, and while watching it, one isn’t always sure the journey has been fully worth the price to the psyche. It’s beautifully acted and unblinkingly harsh, but motivations are sometimes as hazy as the poor protagonist’s pickled brain, and the ultimate tragedy of it all is never quite as monumental as it might like us to feel.
Nicholas Cage plays Ben Sanderson, an alcoholic talent representative for a Hollywood production company. Fired from his job after his wife and son have left him (though that’s just a guess - Figgis’ screenplay is remarkably cryptic with facts about this man’s past life), Ben decides to drink himself to death. He sells everything he has, buys enough alcohol to float a battleship, and heads for Las Vegas where he can lose himself in about four weeks of truly dissipated living before his body dies from acute alcohol poisoning. It’s not a pretty story, and Figgis doesn’t stint on its morbidity. This is a man who is desperate, not to try to find a reason for living but to find a quiet, uncluttered place where he can die in peace as he wishes. He seems lonely and really seeks an understanding soul who won’t try to talk him out of what he’s determined to do. He finds such a soul in Vegas hooker Sera (Elisabeth Shue). Yes, she’s a hooker with a heart of gold, and she’s true to her promise not to badger him about stopping his drinking or finding something to live for. Even when she falls in love with him, she resists as mightily as she can the urge to lecture or seek him help.
Nicholas Cage gives a consistent, showy performance, stumbling around, alternately grinning, grimacing, and groaning, Cage is a spectacle, but it’s pretty much a calculated, actory spectacle. The script sometimes lets him down terribly, offering neither him nor us any explanations as to why he’s so bent on self-destruction and why the love that Shue’s character offers him doesn’t matter. (Many people disliked Marsha Norman’s suicide-centered play and film ‘Night, Mother, but at least she gave her despairing character a reason for her actions and a reason for us to care. Figgis does not.) Elisabeth Shue’s Sera is decidedly more fascinating. Her Vegas prostitute has no illusions about her work or her life, and when circumstances free her from the abusive pimp (Julian Sands) who’s been a millstone around her neck, she really blossoms, enveloping Cage and the viewer in a tender web of motherly concern all the while retaining the sexuality that makes her a successful prostitute. Despite the occasional thickness of her thought processes, she is without question the most appealing character in the film and the real reason to watch Leaving Las Vegas. No other roles are really developed in any meaningful way, though Julian Sands has an offbeat and moderately interesting turn as Sera’s pimp. Laurie Metcalf, Richard Lewis, Xander Berkeley, Steven Weber, R. Lee Ermey, Emily Procter, and Lou Rawls pop in for a moment or two and make quick exits.
As he did in one of his best films Internal Affairs, Figgis pulls no punches letting us see the couple’s seedy lifestyle in all its garish glory. Las Vegas suits these two losers at life and love, and Figgis covers the city and their whirlwind experiences with some flair. The film is technically well made as Figgis captures highway driving from the inebriated Cage’s point of view in a novel and quite gripping way. His script in the film’s first third and last third seems to alternate points of view between Ben and Sera. In the middle portions where the two struggle with ever-more frequent confrontations and resolutions, Figgis brings the camera in uncomfortably close to capture the characters at their worst. A rape sequence late in the film is handled more discreetly than one might expect though its aftermath is actually more affecting. Not surprisingly, Figgis earned Oscar nominations for his direction and his script and won several critics’ prizes for his work (as did the Oscar-winning Cage and Shue).
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 has been delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. It’s a very erratic transfer. Filmed in 16mm, the film has always had a grainy texture, but many sequences here seem to have been smoothed, not to the extent of Predator’s most recent transfer (faces aren’t exactly waxy), but it doesn’t look the way I remember it in the theater. However, grain can be easily seen in other sequences so the gain or loss of grain seems very inconsistent. Color saturation levels are good, and skin tones are realistic. Black levels range from poor with crushed blacks to very good. Sharpness is mediocre at best with a definite lack of detail in most of the images. There are also random specks of dirt though it’s not a major problem. The film has been divided into 32 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound mix is much better than the video quality. The music for the film, a mixture of Mike Figgis’ original score with a host of familiar pop songs and some numbers by Sting, has excellent fidelity and a nice spread through the front and rear soundstage. There aren’t a lot of ambient sounds added to the mix to extend the spread of the soundfield, but what’s here is adequate. Dialogue has been well recorded and resides firmly in the center channel.
The film’s original theatrical trailer is presented in 1080p and runs for 2 ¾ minutes.
3/5 (not an average)
Leaving Las Vegas will not be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s a difficult picture to love but definitely one that has admirable qualities built in, particularly in its arresting pair of lead performances. The video quality in high definition is very disappointing, and there is only a theatrical trailer for a bonus, hardly the respect an Oscar-winning film should be shown.