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Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans

December 4, 2009

You know, Herzog films are just of a different breed.

Some of them, like “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” (1972), are a sheer joy to write about. It just flooded me, right after the credits rolled. Others, like “My son My son, What have ye done” (2009), is almost impossible to put into words. The creation sort of stands outside the realm of criticism…it asks for nothing and seeks to prove nil, its intrinsic value lying in the creative process that engages it. Verbal commentary, in a way, almost cheapens its dreamy quality by dragging it into the realm of reality.

“Bad Lieutenant, Port of Call New Orleans” (2009), for me, stands between the two extremes of affections mentioned. It is a gritty story rooted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. The cinematography is shot with style, the tones and colors evoking the damp, heavy, sensual mood of the South. There is something organic and raw about swamps and heat of plantations, don’t you think? The green of the vegetations feel like they may simply come alive in the middle of the night and bury you in their lushness. The bayou always seems to be crawling with secrets and magic.

Werner Herzog takes advantage of his environment, as he always does, and uses the setting to create a whirlwind narrative of a police officer who because of one seemingly innocuous decision, starts to stumble through a series of life events that involves drugs, sex, mobs, money, deaths, violence, and…I could be missing something, but you get the point. The driving force of the film is drug addiction, which propels its central character, Sergeant Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), with an unmatched intensity and focus in the enforcement of his desires and in the process, sees him bulling through his job with an ingenious wit and some very quick thinkings, eventually ending up in a position that is interesting indeed. The irony of it all is that Terrence didn’t ask for any of it: the money, the drugs, the distinction, the addiction, oh…certainly not the addiction. Yet he got it all.

How does Nicolas Cage invoke the role? With a deep affection and a quirky satisfaction, evidently. Anyone who watches this film can see how perfect Cage and Terrence are for each other. Really, I dare you to imagine anyone else wearing this role, because Cage wears it like a damn fine sleep-wrinkled, booze-stained, crack-powdered, and cocaine-laced cheap suit. He is a formidable actor that hasn’t had much chance to showcase his range in recent years, muddled with the National Treasure flicks that frankly, are just not good enough for him. Here he steps up to the plate and proves that he still got it. Shoulder slanted, face tense, a reckless gleam in his eyes and an urgent stuttering stream of outrageous propositions in mouth, Cage delivers what he calls his “impressionistic” performance – all the more impressive because unlike his role in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), he paints his character here completely dry, with no substance aid aside from that of his imagination. Wicked, I’m sure.

A couple days ago, while riding the subway, I came to a sudden realization about “Bad Lieutenant”. Many people try to stuff it into a genre or category of some sort…American crime, film noir, action thriller…I doubt any of that matters. Why bother with labelling? I doubt Herzog made it with any label in mind. One recurring theme in many of Herzog’s work seems to be the human quality of obsession, and the extent of our capabilities under its spell. Aguirre, My son My son, Bad Lieutenant…you see the thread of obsession running through them all. Herzog seems to be obsessed with obsession. Many of his films see the pitting of human nature against mother nature, the fallible against the infallible, the moral against the eternal. How much can we endure? How far can obsession pull us along? And can we ride it to our doom or bloom?

Obsession is a powerful emotion and motivator, and it can invoke a depth of potential that one doesn’t even realize one possesses. Terrence didn’t ask for any of his afflictions. But once afflicted, he had no choice but to utilize all his talents in order to fulfill his physical needs, in order to keep living. His addiction forced him to take risks, pusue suspects, and run his job with a deranged fervor. He wasn’t a most moral cop, perhaps, but he realized that he was very good at doing cop-ly things. Had he not been addicted, would he ever have realized the extent of his professional skills? We don’t see what kind of cop Terrence was before that fateful day when he jumped in the water, but I get the sense that he wasn’t anything outstanding. In a way, the addiction found him, and made a force to be reckoned with out of him. What hand does fate play in all this? How much of it is free will? There is a great scene near the end when Terrence and the man that triggered his current life meet once again, and they slump against the wall, and talk. I don’t remember exactly what they said…very little, if any. But the fact that they are across from each other again, years later, light-years away from their previous predicaments,  and still so vastly unreachable from each other, carries a kind of ironic perfection.

We are just passing through on this earth, yet we leave so much mark behind in our path, often unaware of the damage. At the same time, mother nature is all-encompassing, and we often forget how our fragile humanity pales in the face of its grandeur. How much of what we accomplish is a result of free will, and how much is attribution of sheer coincidence? People talk of fate…what is fate? In the end, I kind of don’t care about it all, the labels. There are so many ways to get there, but the end result is still only twofold. So the question is, what do you want to make of the journey? And how much do you want to bet on getting to the end…only to discover, potentially, a whole new world of possibilities?

Survival of the fittest…it’s all that drives us, really.

Cage and Herzog post-screening Q&A at TIFF 09

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2009 11:00 AM

    I saw Bad Lieutenant yesterday, and I left the theater not knowing exactly what had happened. The way the movie shifts almost imperceptibly from a somewhat traditional noir story about a corrupt cop to a dark comedy as McDonagh slides deeper and deeper into addiction is perhaps its greater strength. That and Cage’s performance, of course. Here he is again, in a bigger-than-life performance that reminded me a little of Flannery O’Connor’s characters. His awkward walk, caused by his back pain. The ridiculously large gun that sticks out of his pants at all times. His random outbursts of energy. The way he glances distrustfully at iguanas that may or may not actually be there.
    Just watch him in his second confrontation with the witness’s grandmother. Hiding behind the door. Finishing to shave himself with his electric razor, because when else is he going to do it? He may be corrupt, an addict and a gambler, but his job is his life. “A man without a gun is not a man,” he tells his father. The two old ladies prove to be as recalcitrant as Big Fate’s henchmen, but this time McDonagh is not interrogating a suspect at the police station, he doesn’t have to pretend to play by the rules.

    “I’m currently running on an hour and a half of sleep over the past three days,” he tells them, “and I’m trying to remain courteous. But I’m beginning to believe it’s getting in the way of my being effective.”

    And then all hell breaks loose. McDonagh crosses a line there, for the first time threatening someone who is entirely innocent. Yet as he puts his gun in the faces of the two women and yells that they’re “the reason this country is going down the drain,” I couldn’t help but laugh. The whole thing was so outrageous. How does McDonagh expect to get away with that kind of stuff?
    The answer, of course, is that he doesn’t. Or rather, he doesn’t care whether he does or not. His life is spiraling further and further out of control, but as he tries desperately to hang onto something that may stop his fall, he can’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all. And you laugh with him. Perhaps he knows that sometimes, if you don’t laugh, you die.

    Then there’s this masterful ending, where everything seems to be resolved in a matter of minutes. McDonagh himself can’t believe it. It all sounds too perfect. But he goes along with it, and when he refuses to kill Big Fate and is promoted captain, you believe that, somehow, he managed to get himself a happy ending.
    And then the nightclub scene repeats, and the illusion is shattered. Not that a happy ending would mean much, in McDonagh’s world. Nothing ever really ends, there.

    Grace: I almost fell out of my chair laughing during the old lady scene…does that make me a bad person? I hope not. Watch the interview clip Cage talks about that scene. I love the way he leers. I think that’s the only time I’ve seen someone define “LEER”. The ending is awesome. How amazing is it that you don’t know whether to cheer for the guy or beat him up? I mean, he’s an asshole, but such a survivor. And he started out trying to be a good guy, turned into a bad guy, and in the end…I lose track.

    I don’t need my meals squarely line up in on the plate…you know, peas and carrots here, chicken here, mashed calories there. I just want something interesting to chew on, even if it’s mystery meat. Thank god Herzog always delivers those.

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