Monday, December 28, 2009
The release of every new Nicolas Cage feature brings with it a question: will we be getting the Nicolas Cage of actorly fearlessness -- the one who will go to any lengths for his character in films like Adaptation, Leaving Las Vegas and Bringing Out the Dead -- or the Nicolas Cage who looked at the paycheck and not the script, who is just as fearless but in all the wrong ways. You know, the Cage who will thunder such choice lines as "HOW'D IT GET BURRRRRNNNED?!" like William Shatner's mentally deficient, incestuous lovechild.
With Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans, Werner Herzog's kind-of, sort-of, not-even-remotely remake/sequel of Abel Ferrara's 1992 opus, the answer to that question is "yes." Cage's Terrence McDonagh roams the streets of a post-Katrina New Orleans looking for any means to distract him from the back pain he suffered in an uncharacteristic display of heroism, as much a junkie as the suspects he questions in the case of murdered African immigrants. Were this anyone else's movie -- and I promise that it couldn't possibly be -- Terrence might be a symbol of the U.S. government's appalling reaction to the hurricane, his stance as the lawman who ignores the law cruising uncomfortably close to the hysterical reactions to looting and the Bush administration's despicable inaction. And perhaps, in some way, it is; in response to my recent review of Aguirre and my brief discussion of the warped colonial microcosm Herzog created, Ed Howard (author of the estimable blog Only the Cinema) remarked that political readings of Herzog's work are too narrow, that the auteur cares for the endless contradictions and mysteries of humanity itself and not the petty ways in which it is expressed. He's absolutely right, but I don't think we should be so quick to dismiss potential political explorations within his corpus; one should not use them as a bedrock for criticism of the man, but politics are one way that the ideas and dreams of mankind are exhibited.
However, if I were to truly delve into Herzog's mind -- a terrifying prospect, but something a viewer must do with all of his films as they are so inexorably tied to his skewed perspective -- I would indeed expand the scope: Cage, clearly kneeling at the altar of Herzog's insane muse Klaus Kinski, is so unhinged that he becomes a force of nature. When those levees broke, water wasn't the only thing they unleashed upon New Orleans. McDonagh, who sees hallucinations of dancing souls and exerting an inexplicable control over those with whom he crosses paths. Katrina, it seems, set loose the white devil, master and slave to powders that have replaced old voodoo concoctions.
The thought of Werner Herzog directing a police procedural likely doesn't leap out at the average filmgoer as much as Nicolas Cage in a role that promises utmost hyperbole, which is a shame. If more people knew about the director, the prospect of him even nominally approaching such a plot-heavy genre as "crime drama" is funnier than anything Cage has ever done. Indeed, Bad Lieutenant takes so many left turns that the fleeting moments where it actually plays the genre straight are as uproarious as the rest of the film, which departs not only from any identifiable genre trappings but reality itself.
This is a film where a police detective rips out an elderly woman's oxygen hose to get information out of her caregiver. This is a film that cuts from a moment of rivalry between police officers to a shot of an alligator nearby. This is a film where that isn't the only cutaway to a reptile: it opens on a shot of a snake slithering through the fetid waters flowing in the city streets and features an extended sequence between Terrence and a pair of imaginary iguanas (singing iguanas, no less, and not of the computer-animated variety). "Who but Cage could regard an iguana sideways in a look of suspicion and disquiet?" asked Roger Ebert in his review of the film; "You need to keep an eye on an iguana. The bastards are always up to something." With all respect, Roger, I think the iguanas might be the ones casting glances at him.
Herzog has crafted here his finest and most inexplicable comedy since his great Stroszek, though even the broad brushstroke of comedy might still be to restrictive a label for this film. Herzog has directed numerous operas in his career, primarily the works of Richard Wagner (he even directed Lohengrin one year at Bayreuth, king of the opera/classical music festivals), and Bad Lieutenant is certainly outlandish enough for the stage. Unlike the serious-minded opera of Wagner, Bad Lieutenant recalls the comedic German opera of the singspiel, particularly semi-dramatic works like Beethoven's Fidelio (which also features a rescue in a cell and, even more incidentally, was once directed by Herzog).
As is nearly always the case with Herzog's films (at least on the first go), I'm not entirely sure what to make of it, yet I'm in love with its delirium. Herzog packed his cast with performers who are no strangers to going above and beyond the call of duty -- Jennifer Coolidge, Brad Dourif, Val Kilmer(!) -- yet they seem to recognize that any attempts to approach Cage's mania would simply melt the film stock and give reserved but no less entertaining performances. Cage's, though, is his finest in years, his best since Lord of War if not his otherworldly turn in Adaptation: he is a star going nova, yet he also has his moments of lucidity and deduction, and we can see that he can be a good cop -- in a memorable early scene and the only one to completely work as a straight piece of cop drama, he displays a keen insight into interrogating suspects without forcing guns to their heads. The original Bad Lieutenant was no standard police drama, what with its deliberately suffocating Catholic guilt fogging over the narrative, and Herzog manages to sidestep the genre without using any of Ferrara's themes or techniques; as he did with his other, wonderful recent foray into American cinema, Rescue Dawn, Herzog displays just enough respect (or tolerance) for a rigid genre to dabble in it for a few moments before subverting everything in his path, not out of discontent and irascibility but through the simple nature of his being. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans is a portrait of its titular city via its rampaging demon, giving its darkly humorous, endlessly quotable script an undercurrent of sadness: for once, the man who could dominate the world around him is not the hero of Herzog's focus but a tragic victim.