Written & Directed by: Mike Figgis; based on the novel by John O’Brien
Setting: Las Vegas
Screenwriter Ben Sanderson has lost his wife and son and alienated his friends because of his alcoholism. Constantly battling delirium tremens, tightly coiled, and ready to snap, Ben reeks of desperation. He frantically tries to stave off loneliness and boredom by making pathetically clumsy drunken passes at women.
When he is fired due to his drinking, he cashes his severance check and heads to Las Vegas, where he checks into a shabby motel intending to drink himself to death.
Sera is a prostitute, bullied by her brutal pimp, whom she actually pities. When she and Ben meet, they form a tentative bond and eventually fall in love. What they share is both one of the most hellishly sick codependent relationships on earth and a gentle connection — between two deeply damaged individuals whom many people would shun — based on emerging honesty and a tacit agreement to accept each other exactly as they are. Isn’t that level of honesty and acceptance what we all seek? Even when their lives and relationship go into the inevitable downward spiral, their bond remains unbroken.
This is a dark film, and probably not one I will revisit. Some parts are actually brutal, especially one sexual assault scene. (Although, to be fair, it was not nearly as graphic and brutal as it could have been.) But I respect the way it views a raw, messy relationship between two broken people with neither judgment nor sentimentality.
The acting is exceptional. Nicolas Cage gravitates between wild, frenetic excitement, quiet, understated despair, and raw animal anguish. He knocks it out of the ballpark. Elisabeth Shue’s portrayal of Sera is also unforgettable — she seems both beaten down and jaded and heartbreakingly innocent. I am especially impressed by the film’s honest portrayal of alcoholism.
The only thing I disliked about the film were the scenes where Sera talks to someone about her relationship with Ben. It was a bit like that moment when an actor turns to the audience to explain what they’re seeing on stage. She verbalized things readers should have been allowed to infer on their own.
This is a well written, brilliantly acted drama and an unvarnished portrayal of addiction. As Roger Ebert said, in his review of this film: “It is also a sad, trembling portrait of the final stages of alcoholism. Those who found it too extreme were simply lucky enough never to have arrived there themselves.”