Twenty years ago, on October 27, a man named Ben decided to ditch his writer life in Los Angeles and move to Las Vegas, where he would spend four weeks drinking himself to death. While there, he'd also meet Sera, and they would forge a mostly sexless yet co-dependent relationship that would not end well. And spoiler alert: he would successfully drink himself to death. Twenty years ago, on October 27, Leaving Las Vegas was released.
The movie, which was directed by Mike Figgis and adapted from the titular novel by John O'Brien and also starred Elisabeth Shue as Sera, gave us Oscar-nominated performances from its leads, and Cage won Best Actor for his portrayal of Ben. Then he went completely Looney Tunes in Drive Angry, The Wicker Man, and pretty much everything post-The Weatherman. The movie took the industry by storm, and soon after the its successful release—it grossed over $30 million at the box office on a $3.6 million budget—a swath of equally depressing prestige pictures were started flooding Oscar season.
These films were made for low budgets, made money at the box office, and racked up coveted major awards nominations—and sometimes, wins. Vegas’ successful formula proved there was a market for these films and it became the progenitor of high-quality, character-driven, semi-mainstream indie films about everyday people tackling delicate subject matters such as addiction, child abuse, health concerns, and toxic romantic relationships in compelling and wince-inducing ways.
Vegas was filmed on 16mm film and had an arthouse quality to it. Before Vegas was released, neither Shue nor Cage were considered to be Oscar-caliber actors, but the chemistry between them electrified the big screen and remains their best performances to date, especially Shue, who should’ve beat out Susan Sarandon for Best Actress. As an audience, we root for Sera and Ben, because we see a little bit of ourselves in their plight, and we want them to surmount the probably impenetrable obstacles put before them. Even though they’re marginal people, they’re simpatico characters, which seemed like a rare quality for an indie film back then, and even today it seems refreshing. Shue and Cage elevated the idea of stripping away movie star varnishes in exchange for black eyes, knife wounds, and overall gritty performances. The risk-taking enabled for more “pretty actors” to allow themselves to succumb to the realities their characters experienced, in later films. Jared Leto, who’d became a pinup for playing Jordan Catalano on My So-Called Life, really went for it in Requiem for a Dream, as did an entire cast of usually attractive actors, like Natalie Portman in Black Swan and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine. We could even add Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Charlize Theron in Monster to the list.
If you look at the crop of films released post-1995, Vegas' no-holds-barred approach is evident, especially in the acclaimed indie films that were created by cinema’s best auteurs: Pretty much everything Lars von Trier has done since 1996’s Breaking the Waves, including Dancer in the Dark (2000) and Melanchoila (2011), Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) and Black Swan (2010), everything filmmaker Steve McQueen’s done, Boys Don’t Cry (1999), House of Sand and Fog (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004), Revolutionary Road (2008), Precious (2009), The Road (2009) and Amour (2012). In fact, there’s a great Reddit thread about the movies that Vegas helped spawn—one user refers to them as “fuck you movies.”
It’s unclear if Vegas was the exact propulsion for more hard-to-watch or feel-bad films, but it can’t be a complete coincidence.
What Vegas does so well is show a loving relationship between two unlikely people who have demons yet somehow find love in a hopeless place, Sin City. Sera turns tricks for a living, and she’s really good at her job: “I bring out the best in the guys who fuck me,” she tells her off-screen therapist. The entire movie’s the inverse to Pretty Woman, despite the rom-com vibe of the trailer above (which totally misleads the viewer). A flashback reveals her pimp, Yuri (Julian Sands), lacerated her back, and it’s presumed that this wasn’t the first time she was physically abused. Later in the film, three college-aged dudes defile her in what is the most disturbing scene in the film even though in the book, the scene is far worse.
Ben, on the other hand, is between a rock and a hard place because he’s an alcoholic. He says, “I don’t remember if I started drinking because my wife left me or if my wife left me because I started drinking. But fuck it anyway.” When Sera asks him why he decided to drink himself to death, he replies, “I don’t remember. I just know that I want to.” We know from photos he had a wife and a son and a very nice house and was a successful writer until he decided to self-destruct and throw it all way—literally and figuratively. Sera likes Ben because he isn’t condescending to her like most johns. She’s lonely and needy, and the only thing she has “to come home to is bottle of mouthwash.” She feels like she can take care of Ben, and possibly get him to stop drinking, even though early on he tells her, “You can never, never ask me to stop drinking.”
The relationship they form has to be one of the most co-dependent romantic relationships ever filmed. “You’re like an antidote that mixes with liquor and keeps me in balance,” he says to her. She’s his angel, and she wants to do a good deed in picking up his broken bottles and finally having sex with him right before he dies. She doesn’t pity him.
Despite the tragic nature of their romance-with-an-expiration-date scenario though, they both have choices. Sera seems intelligent and kind. She’s not a junkie and she’s in therapy, so she’s aware of her co-dependent issues. Ben’s goal is clear: He’s going to drink hard liquor, not fight off the DTs, and give up on life. Ben dies, but at least dies with “an angel” at his side, his dignity somewhat intact. And Sera, left fucked up by the relationship, will eventually move on and hopefully obtain a less perilous profession and maybe meet a nice Jewish guy. In dissecting other gut-punching films, the characters also have choices. Jared Leto's character allows the heroin monster inside in Requiem for a Dream, and Amy in Gone Girl chooses to go off the rails and seek revenge (raise your hand if you broke up with somebody because of the movie) in what makes Vegas look like a Pixar movie.
In tracing Vegas’ influence, feel-bad movies gained momentum in the late ’90s and early aughts. (There is a very early early precursor however: 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, which became more known for Marlon Brando doing something unspeakable with butter than a story about two strangers having an unstable relationship.) The Blue Valentines and Requiems flourished and became Oscar bait locks as the depravity and dark authenticity of Ben and Sera were remanufactured and expanded on. But that's changing now.
Browsing over the slate of Oscar-caliber films coming out in the next two months, the field seems to be bereft of Leaving Las Vegases. A slew of biographical films are coming out—Steve Jobs, The Danish Girl, Trumbo—but where are the morose flicks that are relatable and make us feel better about our average lives? Has Hollywood gone soft? A handful of movies could be contenders: James White, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Charlie Kaufman’s raved-about Anomalisa, Carol, Entertainment, and who knows, maybe Star Wars or Bradley Cooper’s Burnt (just kidding). Two decades is a long stretch to keep churning out depressing movies, but filmmakers should continue to make these films because they reflect a wide-range of humanity, and show how good people handle tragedy when it strikes them. Today, Leaving Las Vegas seems very modern—except for Cage’s ’90s shoulder pads. The themes of juxtaposing accepting people for who they are while also being selfish and desperate will continue to resonate even longer, because let’s face it—we all love a fucked up movie.