March 11, 2008
You Can't Judge Me: Leaving Las Vegas
You know from the very first frame of Leaving Las Vegas that Ben Sanderson regards himself as a dead man, and will spend the rest of the film attempting to encompass that identity. The first fifteen minutes serve as an introduction to Ben's severe alcoholism, so where they fall chronologically in terms of his progressive sickness is a little hazy, but I suspect that this first scene takes place either during the immediate fallout of his never-fully-explained marital/familial tragedy, or right after he has been fired and cut off from all of his friends--in either case different stages of the mentality that has decided to completely free him of such concerns. He's aware that he's being watched as he dumps an endless supply of liquor into his shopping cart, whistling some unknown tune as he jives down the aisle and makes just the right selections to sate his thirst. He passes by the shelves of bottled water in an almost sarcastic manner, taking a step past the booze before spinning back around to pick up one last bottle. Nicolas Cage's performance as Ben is one of gradual, entropic deconstruction, establishing a man entirely on his own wavelength and spending the rest of the film taking him apart, piece by piece, until nothing recognizable remains.As Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies essay on Leaving Las Vegas, Ben's drinking binges "are not about pleasure but about the temporary release from pain," but Cage transcends even that simple truth. He carefully studies Ben's various states of drunkenness in these early scenes, each of which represent a different level of a long and torturous journey to foster some understanding for who he is as the world collapses around him. The pain to be found in his brief stretches of sobriety is palpable--sweaty and fidgety, his hands desperate to grab onto something steady, his eyes either tightly shut or wide open, darting back and forth with suspicion--but it's the moments of booze-induced levity that are the most difficult to watch in this first act of the film. In contemporary interviews, Cage mentions that he watched several "great alcoholic performances" but connected most with Albert Finney's role as a drunken British consul in Under the Volcano. That makes sense: in The Lost Weekend, Ray Milland personifies an alcoholic's desperation to make the pain go away, but Ben/Cage's early moments share with Finney's Geoffrey Firmin a long-standing belief that alcohol is fuel for the personality--the concept of "liquid courage" taken in its most literal sense.
With this in mind, the physical dependence seems like only a side-effect of the psychological dependence. Ben distrusts himself to such an extreme degree that he relies completely on the alcohol to take control of his emotional state. He doesn't know how to approach social situations anymore, and simply coasts along to wherever the buzz will take him: as he hits on a disinterested woman (Valeria Golino) at the bar that serves as his L.A. haunt, he submits to a pendulous non-strategy, swinging from casual introductions to excessive silliness to egotistical directness to pitiable depression with impossible ease. Ultimately, Ben seems comfortable in letting alcohol dictate him before anyone else ("Maybe I shouldn't breathe so much, Terri! Hahaaaaaaa...") but his inability to find a woman still represents failure, and Cage sees that compounding sense of failure as the factor that finally overtakes Ben's unreasonably high tolerance for alcohol--the painful, gasping transition into numbness finally turns him to a pathetic stagger trying desperately to disguise itself as euphoria.
But in that attempt to feign happiness, you can sense an obligation to the daily grind that prevents him from just offing himself; you can locate moments when his former personality peeks its head out of the grave. Even as his colleagues sever their ties with him, Cage drops little indications that Ben was, at some point, a brilliant man and a good friend. As a Hollywood producer, he must have had a sharp eye for scripts: when he blasts a self-destructive monologue into a tape recorder while staring at his muse-of-the-moment, a blond bank teller ("if you spread your legs and had bourbon dripping from your breasts, and your pussy, [...] then, I would have a purpose--to could clean you up--and that, that!, would prove that I'm worth something"), he drips with creative obsession, cataloging his thoughts with confidence and urgency because it won't be long before the last shred of his talent drifts off into infinity. This sense of focus helps us better understand how this man could chug a bottle of vodka with such complete abandon, long after any rejuvenating effects have left him--eventually, the obsession is all that remains. "I'm sorry," Ben tells his boss upon being (very gently) fired, just barely suppressing a weeping fit. It's Ben/Cage's only moment of genuine remorse, extinguished seconds later by a stone-faced declaration that he will move out to Las Vegas. You soon realize that you have witnessed the final swing of the pendulum, the final death twitch of the man Ben once was and whatever prevented him from destroying himself for good. Personality no longer matters.
Physical evidence of his existence is the first thing to go, and already we see Ben/Cage trying to forge the distance between him and the rest of the world--he regards a salacious picture of his ex-wife as a foreign object before tossing it into the fire eating away at the rest of his possessions; he enters his son's room knowing that he should be sad but suppressing everything beyond the vaguest reasons why. On the other hand, he relishes the booze that he takes in on the long drive to Vegas, gasping down the stuff between inaudible ahhhhhhs. Looking beyond the weight that he has just thrown off his shoulders, it's the only indication that he ever actively enjoyed drinking outside of its most devastating soporific effects. This is the moment that clues us in to Ben's assertion later in the film, that "killing myself [is] a way to drink." It's interesting to contemplate the level of self-awareness that Cage injects into Ben, and how he acutely understands that the suicidal journey is no longer about how much he hates (or hated) himself, or any kind of self-punishment to that end--hell, if he could do nothing but drink until the end of time, he would. He smiles and chuckles in a "who gives a shit" manner that only regards the inevitable descent into death as just that: inevitable. This general indifference points to why his gravitation towards prostitute Sera (Elizabeth Shue) is so difficult to pin down. The film is haunted by the possibility that Sera's attraction to Ben are borne from her own masochistic tendencies, but Ben/Cage's cavalier approach of her brings into question whether or not he really recognizes her: he nearly ran this woman over during his grand entrance into the city, and got a middle finger in response. He doesn't seem to be actively looking for pleasure or abuse from her, but merely submits to another human necessity left in him--admitting that even dedicated misanthropes cannot stand to be complete hermits. But considering how the film will operate from this point, would he have treated another woman differently had she given him the same amount of leeway that Sera does? The real beauty of Shue's performance, meanwhile, is how she visibly struggles to reconcile between Ben/Cage's need for companionship and his disinterest in anything outside of his intrinsically lonely path.After all, there is mutual acceptance in their relationship, yes, and even mutual admiration, but not mutual love. "You're like some kinda antidote that mixes with the liquor and keeps me in balance," Ben/Cage decides (it's important to see this as a sudden decision), and that's how he will see her: as an appreciated, though perpetually external, force of sympathy. He expresses his concern that he doesn't want to drag her down with him, much in the same way that an atheist wouldn't want to actively tread on a friend's religious beliefs, and counters her request that he move in with her by forging a verbal contract that she can never, never, ask him to stop drinking. The creation of this pact is the only sentence he can say to her with any sense of conviction, and soon it's back to well, what the hell. Packing up his remaining bottles back at his motel, he practices his sincerity in an almost sing-songy lilt: "Yes, I'm crazy about you. Okay?" (That last word is spoken with a peculiar shortness that recalls his petulant response to Sera's demands for an apology after nearly hitting her with his car.) His claims that he is already in love with her and that he "wanted to come to [her] clean" are half-conscious lies, but he recites them with a weary straightforwardness that hopes she will know they are lies but just go along with them anyway. In his desire to maintain distance, Ben/Cage adheres to a warped sense of verisimilitude, one not necessarily borne of drunkenness but one that quantifies the dichotomy of the drunk: the expectation for others to believe in vino veritas while maintaining that they shouldn't trust anything he says while under the influence.
However, from this point on, Ben's drunkenness no longer guides his actions and desires--it defines them in every sense of the word. The symptoms of alcoholism are now firmly established as personality traits, and when Ben and Sera go out for a night of gambling, Cage lets go of the wheel, acting completely on impulse. No swings, no transitions. He sees something, he wants it, he gets it--there's a brief, terrifying moment in which he jumps at Sera and slams her against a slot machine before leaning in for a kiss. Another, more pivotal moment occurs at the blackjack table, when the booze takes its toll and he slumps into his hands. A concerned waitress approaches him, so he orders a Bloody Mary--and suddenly, he swings his neck around sharply: "What? What?! No! NO! Fuck, you fuck!" He continues to curse at the top of his lungs as he topples over the table and starts thrashing at it wildly. At first you think that the waitress set him off by refusing to give him the Bloody Mary he just ordered; but no, she seemed willing to oblige him. Soon the security guards are upon him, and he starts screaming as they drag him away: "You can't judge me! You--I am his father! I am his father!" His ghoulish wailing indicates that this has been a long time coming, and finally exposes the fact that he has not completely rid himself of the emotions that brought him here. Theswre's a brief hint of Ben/Cage's suppressed rage earlier in the film, when he responds to a lecture from the L.A. bartender--his brow furrows and his teeth clench as he recites "I appreciate your concern" in a tone of voice that barely conceals "just pour me another drink, asshole." The sharp release here conjures images of endless arguments and ugly divorce proceedings, with Ben swallowing the totality of his anger and sorrow to maintain some modicum of dignity. At this moment, however, Ben has no dignity left, and the bouts with delirium tremens serve as his only catharsis.
Despite her obvious love for him--or, at least, what he represents--Sera's actions on Ben's behalf (escorting him out of the casino, cleaning him up, buying him a hip flask) do not seem to affect him beyond thanking her and telling her that she is an "angel." He offers her gifts and tells bad jokes in a very perfunctory manner, as if he has determined that he has found a woman who will tolerate him, and all women must be treated in precisely the same way--a mentality that we realize just one scene earlier, when he treats a girl at a biker bar in an almost identical manner before getting his nose smashed in by her boyfriend. There are very, very brief moments when he seems to regret that he cannot muster the same level of concern for Sera that she has invested in him--particularly noticeable when he makes a snap decision to insult her in a bid to break away--but the dynamic between them simply is what it is. When he nonchalantly walks into the pool at another motel, bottle in hand, Sera jumps in to "save" him with an underwater kiss, and there is absolutely no passion behind it; there is more direct intent in the way Ben/Cage places his thumb over the bottle to keep the precious liquid from escaping. However, the next few scenes finally expose some unconscious sense of gratitude: she pours liquor over her breasts and Ben suckles it from them, a moment, long implied, that finally literalizes the film's pseudo-Oedipal overtones.
"I wanna ge'my drinky," he says as they get up--he stumbles back too fast and falls into a nearby glass table. Despite the shards now embedded in his back, Ben/Cage laughs and cracks jokes with a genuine freedom that has gone unheard since the film began ("I'm like a prickly pear," he hoots with a half-British accent)--he has finally located the purely theoretical sense of worth for which he pined back when he stared at that bank teller with lust and self-loathing. But the rediscovery of his long-sought-after purpose means that it has been simultaneously fulfilled, and there is a tacit understanding that the final descent has begun. The haunting spirit of his past has at last been exorcised--but it's doubtful that Ben realizes what he has accomplished, or why this represents his personal death knell. Indifference to the world around him has encompassed him to such a degree that it has reduced him to an infinite loop of stimulus-response; the dearth of any conscious/unconscious goals (not to mention the onset of brain damage) has finally left him without any knowledge of what he wants. All that's left is a quaking zombie clinging onto his rudimentary sense of object permanence, desperate to know that Sera and alcohol are still a constant presence.
But after Ben baptizes this new stage of living death in a shower of vodka, Sera pleads with him to see a doctor, carefully dancing around any implication that he needs to stop drinking. Although he cannot communicate beyond a jumble of infantile syllables ("Sera... I nagonsee doctor"), Ben/Cage's thousand-mile stare still exudes a childlike understanding of betrayal. You can feel him slowly piecing together the indirect logic of this request: a doctor will only tell him to stop drinking, and therefore Sera has broken their cardinal rule. Like so many aspects of their relationship, the discussion ends without a proper conclusion; Sera goes off to work while Ben works off his last vestige of life at the craps table, where he attracts the attention of a buxom young woman. Considering how the last few days (weeks?) have destroyed any pretense of charm, coherence or sex drive, it may be difficult to see how or why Ben could attract anyone on the casino floor--even another prostitute. But while these surroundings have given Ben/Cage a brief visceral charge in the past, by throwing his last bit of energy into a shrieking rage ("snake eyeeeeeeeeees!"), he becomes the quintessential Vegas gambler. He has completed the downward slide into nothingness; all that's left is a neanderthalic need to drink and throw dice and fuck. Once Sera catches them in bed, he knows that he has wronged her and that he must leave, but only on a very base, instinctual level--he must go out looking to fulfill his needs unhindered.
The next time they see each other, Sera has been gang-raped and Ben is in his final throes; there is nothing left but violent convulsions. "I wann'ed a'see you," he mutters to Sera on his deathbed. "You my angel." He apologizes to Sera and asks what happened to her face, again, in a very perfunctory manner--taking more trouble to locate the strength required to bring a nearby bottle to his lips. He lazily attempts to coax an erection, but Sera climbs on top of him anyway. He tells her: "You know I love you, yeah." Spoken as a half-hearted statement, not a question, because he knows that the charade can no longer be maintained--and then, after several agonizing seconds of limp sex, Ben "climaxes." This release is Cage's tour de force moment: a deadpan wheeze that implies an orgasm but never actually convinces you that one has occurred--Ben's final living act interpreted as a moment of inaction, and the confirmation that he has been incapable of love for a long, long time. As dawn breaks, Ben is almost completely paralyzed--but he manages to turn his neck around and see Sera, still at his side. "Wowwwww," he croaks, staring into the beyond with newfound comprehension. That's the paramount tragedy of the film and the performance: he could no longer feel it, he refused to see it, and he never even recognized it until the very moment his physical self finally caught up with his bleak worldview.