When once blasting the Cinéma Vérité documentary film movement, a movement driven by the desire for some form of indexical truth between film and the real world nurtured via a “fly on the wall” aesthetic, director Werner Herzog noted that “there are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” Herzog, an eclectic director of both documentaries and fiction films, has often followed this approach in the past in both modes of filmmaking through one continuous approach. In the majority of his films, Herzog chooses to accentuate what are often tales of madness with an aesthetic focus that de-emphasize the drama in favor of the landscape and the role of nature in such processes, shifting film away from objective truth towards something more subjective and expressionistic. Viewers familiar with Herzog’s filmmaking are no doubt familiar with this trope, as it brings to mind so many seminal scenes from his films: the feverish spinning of a raft in Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), the dancing chicken in Stroszek (1977), or the story about an insane penguin in Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Well, after seeing Herzog’s latest, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009), they’ll be adding one more scene to that list: Lt. Terrance McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), under the influence of cocaine, imagines a pair of iguanas in the midst of a police stakeout and asks his partner (Val Kilmer), “What are those fuckin’ iguanas doing on my coffee table?”
There are a handful of these moments in Bad Lieutenant and, thanks also to a tone that tosses out the gritty seriousness of Abel Ferrara’s original 1992 film for a much more comical one, the remake is ultimately memorable for its maniacal qualities. This, of course, brings up whether it is even helpful to describe the Ferrara film as the original and this as a remake when the only thing they have in common is a corrupt police officer in a lead role. Essentially, latching onto that thin connection would result in the conclusion that Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) was the original to Ferrara’s film. I assume this evaluation of the film would please Herzog, who recently noted that “It does not bespeak great wisdom to call the film The Bad Lieutenant, and I only agreed to make the film after William Finkelstein, the screenwriter, who had seen a film of the same name from the early nineties, had given me a solemn oath that this was not a remake at all … Nevertheless, the pedantic branch of academia, the so-called ‘film-studies,’ in its attempt to do damage to cinema, will be ecstatic to find a small reference to that earlier film here and there … I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one. Go for it, losers.” Yet, I digress. While the plot of writer William M. Finkelstein’s script is pulpy and rather generic, Herzog uses the plot markers of the policier, much like the work of Jean-Luc Godard in such films as Breathless (1960) and Alphaville (1965), only for establishing guideposts for the audience, allowing him to choose his own detours on the way.
The film focuses on McDonagh as he grapples with the unforeseen repercussions of a good deed. The film begins during Hurricane Katrina as McDonagh jumps into a pool of murky water to save a prisoner who is about to drown in his flooding cell. The act not only results in McDonagh’s promotion to lieutenant and a distinguished service citation, but with crippling back pain as well. The doctor prescribes Vicodin but, after six months, McDonagh has resorted to any kind of illegal substance available to heal the pain. Under the influence, McDonagh is assigned to the investigation of the murder of a family of illegal immigrants by a local drug lord (rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), which is the plot that drives the bulk of the film.
Yet, as I’ve already noted, Herzog does not allow the rather generic plot to overwhelm the film. While McDonagh is not a terrible investigator given the circumstances, using the case as a focus for the character would overlook the opportunity for that elusive and poetic truth. Herzog supplements scenes of McDonagh on the case with scenes in which we’re given glimpses into his personal life, most notably through his interactions with his prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), his bookie Ned (Brad Dourif), his father (Tom Bower) and his step-mother (Jennifer Coolidge), and three other police officers who share McDonagh’s less-than-morally-correct characteristics (Kilmer, Michael Shannon, and Fairuza Balk). The result is a film that is a bit shaggy and far from perfect, but infinitely more interesting and entertaining than other crime films that could brag to be in the less shaggy, more focused and, ultimately, more traditional.
While Herzog’s approach to the plot and his aesthetic and tonal embellishments go a long way in creating this unique experience (the audience I saw it with seemed not to have expected the amount of laughter the film would inspire, causing enthusiastic applause to rip through the theater as the credits rolled), Nicolas Cage’s performance does the majority of the heavy lifting. Now, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Cage’s work, as the misses tend to outweigh the hits. Yet, there is no doubt that when Cage lands a performance (as he did in Adaptation, Matchstick Men, and The Weather Man most recently) that it has the quality of lightning in a bottle. Cage’s McDonagh has qualities of some of his previous characters, perhaps most notably his role in David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), yet the drawl of his diction, the awkwardness of his gait (he does have moderate to severe back pain after all), his overall swagger (his chuckling at the street names of thugs, his crazed citation of rap and hip hop lyrics), and his use of props (which include a lucky crack pipe, a huge handgun, and a cordless electric razor) is completely unique. Cage’s off-the-rails performance, reminiscent of Herzog’s work with Klaus Kinski, will probably be overlooked at the end of the year which is unfortunate, as it stands as one of best comedic performances I’ve seen all year.
There’s a scene at the end of the film where McDonagh goes to an aquarium to ride out the remainder of a high. As he thinks about the fish and sharks, he lets out a short chuckle. For the first time in the film, we feel a connection with the character that we have been alienated from since the film’s first sight of McDonagh as a pre-back pain, seemingly less-corrupt public servant. The connection is elicited by the realization of an analogous observation: McDonagh is watching strange creatures engage with one another under the influence of cocaine yet, what have we been doing as spectators for the past two hours? We too have been watching a strange creature also under the influence (hopefully of Herzog’s poetic aesthetic, not cocaine) and, like McDonagh, we can’t help ourselves but laugh.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.