Free Fall In Vegas

A love story like no other, Mike Figgis's Leaving Las Vegas is a bleak, mesmerizing rhapsody of self-destruction, defiantly uninterested in peddling Hollywood-style uplift. Figgis doesn't pretend, and I won't either, that this movie is for everybody. Its milieu is sordid, its language explicit and its lovers--an alcoholic screenwriter named Ben (Nicolas Cage) and a Vegas prostitute named Sera (Elisabeth Shue)--aren't in the market for reformation. But anyone who cares about ravishing filmmaking, superb acting and movies willing to dive into the mystery of unconditional love will leave this dark romance both shaken and invigorated.

The movie takes its tone of manic, frazzled lyricism from its sozzled hero. All we know about Ben is that he's lost his wife and child because of his drinking, and now he's lost his writing job. Burning his possessions, he heads for Las Vegas with the simple goal of drinking himself to death. Beyond hope, fortified with massive quantities of booze, he attains at moments (when he's not racked with the shakes) the benign, loquacious cheerfulness of a man for whom there's no difference between free fall and freedom. He picks up Sera on the Strip and takes her back to his motel. Sex, in his state, is out of the question. They drink together, pass out together and, several encounters later, move in together. He has one condition--that Sera will never ask him to stop drinking. She agrees. Nor will he ask her to stop hooking.

They have no future, but writer-director-composer Figgis, a bona fide existentialist, gives them a now that is harrowing and heartbreaking in its precisely observed de-tails. "Leaving Las Vegas," based on a John O'Brien novel, doesn't have much plot, and doesn't need it. It lives on its noirish, sexualized atmosphere, its vivid minor characters, its haunting, ballad-laden score and the startling editing, which suggests the lurching, almost hallucinatory rhythms of a drunken mind. And most of all it lives in the risky, honest performances of Cage and Shue, whose tough-tender poignance and raw physicality will astonish everyone who remembers her from her bland roles in "Cocktail" and "Adventures in Babysitting." You can feel that everyone involved was digging deep; they've struck tarnished gold.