“Leaving Las Vegas”
While it’s tempting to compare “Leaving Las Vegas” to “The Lost Weekend” (see below), the key difference between Billy Wilder’s wrenching drama about alcoholism and Mike Figgis’ darkly romantic neo-noir is that there’s no hope of recovery for the latter film’s lead protagonist. Washed-up screenwriter Ben Sanderson (Nicolas Cage) goes to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. And in spite of her best efforts, Sera (Elisabeth Shue), a lonely prostitute that’s instantly attracted to him, yet can’t steer Ben clear of his suicidal impulses. Worse still, Ben doesn’t have the luxury of being surrounded by a community of friends or loved ones. There’s no kindly bartenders here, nor any magically redemptive qualities to Sera’s love. All that’s left for Ben at this point is a grinding and inevitably fatal binge. Figgis refuses to pity Ben: he’s pathetic and often slovenly but he’s also not without a certain three-sheets-to-the-wind kind of charm. Likewise, it’s to Figgis’ great credit that Sera’s character arc isn’t contrived. Even when Sera hits rock bottom hard, the new low that her own powerlessness brings her to never seems gratuitous within the context of the story that's being told. And when the film ends, Ben leaves Sera to hit a new low all by herself.
“The Lost Weekend”
Billy Wilder's “The Lost Weekend” is basically a horror film about a washed-up writer whose addiction has taken over his life. The film begins with a long crane shot that initially surveys the buildings on a city block and then hones in on a bottle of whiskey that Ray Milland's haunted Don Birnam has secreted in case of such an emergency. Don's brother Wick (Phillip Terry) and his girlfriend Helen (Jane Wyman) want to take him away from the city for the weekend to help him sober up, but Don is already doing everything short of cartwheels to get that bottle of Rye back. Don's fears of being alone and desperately in need of a drink in a city full of people that pity him are well-founded. Once he's pushed Wick and Helen away, Don stumbles around the city alone in search for money enough to buy his next drink. The universe seems to conspire against Don, an alcoholic that's always perilously close to hitting rock bottom but never quite makes it, until he's made to see that he's never really been alone or without resources. Miklos Rozsa's theremin-heavy score compliments nightmarish scenes like when a bat devours a rat hiding in Don's apartment, or when Don stumbles around looking for a pawn shop but finds they're all closed for Yom Kippur. “Lost Weekend” is potent nightmare fuel, right up until its sobering finale.