Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ed Howard: The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans

The Bad Lieutenant — Port of Call: New Orleans
by Ed Howard
Only the Cinema

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.

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