The Phantom Carriage, a seminal achievement in silent filmmaking from that other great Swedish auteur, Victor Sjöström, is a stern, supernatural moral drama that rails against social problems of the day by enlisting an emissary from the Great Beyond to lecture the feckless, abusive protagonist on what a rotten shit he is. Sjöström remains best known internationally for his later Hollywood films, made with the likes of Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo, but The Phantom Carriage already testified to genius behind the camera as well as in front of it. When the movie finished playing, I picked up the disc’s keepcase and squinted at it, in all my ignorance, to determine who so expertly essayed the central character of the alcoholic David Holm. When I read the answer (Sjöström himself), I wanted to fling the box across the room. Show-off.
Crazy Heart, an amiable on-the-road-again yarn, showcases a singing and strumming Jeff Bridges to great, grizzled effect. Bridges plays Bad Blake, a past-his-prime, whiskey-guzzling singer-songwriter whose near-legendary status in country-music circles is no substitute for a regular paycheck. As the movie opens, he’s arriving for a gig with a pick-up band at a bowling alley in Pueblo, Colorado, where he has something of an epiphany that his career isn’t going exactly the way he had planned. (Given that I grew up in Pueblo, I found this hilarious, even though the location doesn’t look or feel anything like the real town.)
In Leaving Las Vegas, Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin, an alcoholic who’s lost his family and his job and moves to Las Vegas to quite deliberately drink himself to death over the course of four weeks’ time. While he’s there, he meets a hooker named Sera, played by Elisabeth Shue, who’s cast adrift, so to speak, when her boyfriend and pimp (Julian Sands) is finally murdered by the thugs he owes money to. Since these two are just about the neediest people on the planet, they immediately fall into a codependent relationship. Ben agrees to vacate his room at the $29-a-night Whole Year Inn (in an unusual moment of lucidity, Ben reads the sign as “the hole you’re in”) and move in with Sera on one condition — she can never ask him to stop drinking.