Tuesday, May 4, 2010
The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans
It's been literally decades since Werner Herzog has made a truly satisfying fictional film. It seems obvious that, since at least the late 1980s, the director's interest has increasingly turned towards documentary and pseudo-documentary, while his fiction features have become less and less frequent, and more and more uneven. The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans is, then, an unexpected revitalization of Herzog's instincts for fiction, a non-remake of the sex-drugs-and-violence-packed 1992 Abel Ferrara film Bad Lieutenant. Herzog's supposed remake, made with absolutely no knowledge of Ferrara's original and with only the most tenuous of connections — there's a lieutenant! and he's bad! — takes the basic premise of a corrupt cop and spins it out into a ludicrous (a)morality tale about the delicate balance between good and evil that exists within this addled New Orleans cop. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) is dirty in nearly every way. He's a drug addict who steals and snorts prodigious amounts of drugs, balancing heroin and coke and prescription painkillers. He sleeps with (and provides drugs to) the prostitute Frankie (Eva Mendes) and intimidates and rips off her clients whenever he encounters them. He stalks drunken and drugged-up kids coming out of clubs, holding them up for their stashes. He's an outrageous and lunatic figure, representing a wackier and goofier variation on Harvey Keitel's drugged-up psychopath in Ferrara's original film.
Herzog's first ingenious move was casting Nicolas Cage in this part and fully exploiting the actor's tendency towards over-the-top melodramatics. Cage's performance is something truly strange and unique, the work of an actor pouring all of his seemingly worst qualities into a character and really making him come alive. McDonagh's collapse, his moral degradation, is eloquently conveyed in every aspect of Cage's performance, from his permanent crooked slouch (evidence of the on-the-job injury that set him off on his painkiller addiction) to his twitchy mannerisms to the tortured cadences of his speech, shifting from drawled mumbling to coked-up hyperactivity with a moment's notice. For such a bizarre, purposefully overblown performance, Cage never forsakes the subtleties that suggest his character as fully as the more obvious gestures do. It'd be tempting to call this a "bad" performance, and it often seems like one in its superficial aspects. But Cage's oddball speech rhythms and over-emphasized facial tics only contribute to the unease generated by the character of McDonagh, by his unpredictable vacillations between hero cop, drug dropout and borderline psycho. It is, in its weird way, a disarmingly subtle performance.
Of course, the obvious gestures get most of the attention here, and with good reason. The film rolls out one nutty premise after another, right from the opening in which — after a few moody, blood-red-lit shots of a snake winding through a flooded jail cell — McDonagh and his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) take bets about how long it will take for the rising water to drown a trapped prisoner. This comes only a few minutes after an onscreen title announces that the film takes place in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the cops' irreverent attitude towards their responsibilities thus suggests a satirical perspective on the response of various US institutions and authorities to this tragedy. Of course, such social consciousness is not common in Herzog, and the remainder of the film addresses such issues only obliquely, in the form of the not-so-subtle markers of race and class that are constantly defining and limiting these characters. The incident that triggers the plot is the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, apparently a drug crime, and one of the film's looniest contrivances — and that's really saying something — is the fact that the police immediately make this crime a high priority. Herzog underlines the absurdity of it all, announcing the film's undeniable status as fantasy: the police captain tells his men that this crime will be their big concern and that any amount of overtime is justified, as if the police always dedicate such attention to the murders of black illegal immigrants who were tangentially involved in the drug trade.
Race is continually an unsettling presence in this film, particularly in a scene where McDonagh is confronted by a relative of the murdered family, who delivers a completely unfettered expression of grief that's nearly embarrassing in its nakedness and uncontrolled despair. Her performance is as unhinged as Cage's, and the meeting between them is a vortex for all of the film's ungainly and often ugly emotions: a black woman's grief and a white cop's frazzled guilt and half-functioning desire to do good. The caricaturing of this women makes the scene especially uncomfortable, but at the same time her pain and anger are palpable; like many things in this film, it's a potent combination of the awkwardly stylized and the startlingly real.
More often, McDonagh's negative impulses win out, in one nutty scene after another. High on drugs on a stakeout, he hallucinates a pair of blues-crooning iguanas, who Herzog films from a skewed perspective with their gaping lizard jaws pressed up to the lens. The emphasis on cold reptilian blankness, as a parallel to McDonagh's white-hot messiness, is repeated in the scene when McDonagh tries to bully a favor out of a hard-nosed traffic cop; the scene takes place at an accident site where a car has hit an alligator and flipped over, and at the end of the scene Herzog pans away to the roadside where a second alligator is roaming along the grass. Later, McDonagh sees a dead mobster's "soul" breakdancing, dressed like the dead man but younger, with a spiky mohawk. It'd be an empty surrealist moment if not for its context, if the criminal hadn't just moments earlier delivered a bitter speech about how he was growing old and had sacrificed the dubious thieves' morality that had once been a point of honor for him. In this context, the mobster's soul dancing after his death becomes disarmingly poignant, one last burst from the youthful, hopeful spirit that still obviously lingered somewhere within this hateful, greedy, violent man. It's a sign, perhaps, of what's to come for McDonagh himself, who maintains hints of decency within his overall corruption.
Herzog's woozy, off-kilter cinematography is a perfect complement to McDonagh's increasing descent into lunacy and corruption. The camera occasionally takes on McDonagh's subjective perspective explicitly — as when it captures his iguana hallucinations — but more often it's maintaining a delicate balance between cool mediating distance and uncomfortable intimacy. When McDonagh accosts a pair of teens coming out of a club, Herzog opts for the latter, pushing into an unsettlingly sexualized closeup as the young girl, grasping instantly that McDonagh's up to no good, adopts a confrontational, seductive manner, finally blowing crack smoke directly into his mouth while kissing him. It's yet another example of how hyper-stylized everything is here, how heightened the film's reality is; every situation McDonagh encounters is blown up to epic proportions by the intensity of the filmmaking and the over-the-top performances. Even the casting conspires to make this a skewed Herzogian vision of New Orleans. McDonagh's bookie (Brad Dourif) and the property room clerk (Michael Shannon) who steals evidence for him are both played by favorite Herzogian actors, actors very well-suited to the bombast and allegorical heft of this story.
The resulting film is a delirious, oddball journey unlike anything else — which would be par for the course for Herzog except that it's also surprisingly unlike any other Herzog film as well. McDonagh has hints of the driven Herzogian lunatic/hero in his personality, but in other ways this feels very distinct from the typical Herzog film. Still, the director's personality infuses the film in more subtle ways, particularly in the ironic ending: in a very rapid series of scenes, everything is resolved for McDonagh in the most unrealistic ways, as sheer luck steers the disintegrating cop away from what had seemed to be a collision course with utter disaster. It would seem to be the opposite of Herzog's nihilism and pessimism, an ode to traditional values — marriage, family, sobriety, honor — as holding back the void. However, the extreme unreality of this denouement undermines the seeming optimism and good cheer: it becomes a parody of a happy ending, barely containing the dark energy at the story's core. Herzog reinforces this impression by looping back to a virtual repeat of an earlier scene of depravity, revealing that even in his moment of triumph and seeming redemption, McDonagh is unable to truly reform. The film ends on a darker note that's more in keeping with Herzog's skeptical view of the universe, with a metaphysical final shot that positions McDonagh in relation to the primitive depths of the ocean. For Herzog, man is only one more violent, instinct-driven animal, and in that respect at least the wild, uncontrollable McDonagh winds up being very like a Herzogian hero after all.