Monday, December 14, 2009

Werner Herzog's 'Bad Lieutenant' is a Train Wreck Worth Watching

By Mike Gillis

There is a scene late in Wernor Herzog's ode to anarchy, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" where bad New Orleans Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) interrogates an old, wheelchair-bound woman and her hairdresser at a rest home. McDonagh is looking for the hairdresser's grandson, a witness to the execution of a Senegalese family. McDonagh reaches down and rips out the oxygen tubes from the old woman's nose and keeps her gasping until her hairdresser spills the beans. Once the oxygen is restored the abuse doesn't stop. McDonagh begins a rant about the old woman and her oxygen tank being the reason the country is falling apart, suggesting she's wasting her children's inheritance to selfishly prolong her frailty.

It's a senseless berating, but offers a rickety framework to a movie that clearly intends to defy meaning: Once the body unravels, nothing holds it together well, so what's the point? The old woman's oxygen is no different than the cocaine and heroin McDonagh snorts, first to mask back pain, but ultimately to dodge the harsh reality of mortality. McDonagh finds solace with drugs, a prostitute (Eva Mendes), abuse of power and ego. He uses everyone around him: his father and stepmother, his peers, drug dealers. It's all reckless.

And that's the wild mystique of Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant," which bears little resemblance to Abel Ferrara's 1992 picture of the same name. Unlike that film, which was set in New York and starred Harvey Keitel in the lead role, Herzog's take is a brash, unhinged stab at noir. His location, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is the perfect backdrop: it's dark, dank and teeming with characters lost to the shadows. It's no pleasant trip, but it reminds me of some of the grittier noir films of the 50s, like "Scandal Sheet" and "99 River Street," which sucker punched the conventions of the genre. Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant" follows the same path, and if nothing else, is a reminder how predictable and cliche the genre has become. Unlike a Martin Scorsese picture, where violence is stepped up to penetrate a shield of desensitization, Herzog's picture, remarkably, sheds little blood.

Instead, Herzog, through Cage, seems more interested in testing the limits of character unbound. Much has been written about Cage's performance -- is he acting? -- and it's true that "Bad Lieutenant" finds what's still reserved -- or long subdued -- of Cage's ability. More importantly, Herzog seems willing to let Cage channel the character without visible restraint. One can imagine that experiment failing easily in the wrong hands. But not for Cage and Herzog. From one act of absurdity or vulgarity to another, we never lose sight of the pain and dissolution of McDonagh, whether he's hobbling under the crush of a wrecked back, or given to chaos-fueled explosions of anger and pleasure that make ridiculous sense for a man sidestepping reality. With iguanas, too. (You'll have to see for yourself.)

Herzog seems attracted to stories about men who tackle mortality by ignoring it, blindly. That's true of some of his documentaries -- "Grizzly Man" -- and it's true here. In his own way, Herzog seems to be asking what good is life if not lived? McDonagh's life is no model, to be sure, which seems to underline the message: Once life unravels, how do you hold it together? For McDonagh and Bad Lieutenant, you don't; you simply push until you're pushed back. Cage's character may not find freedom by shedding his convictions and morality, but Herzog most certainly finds freedom from the pitfalls of conventional filmmaking.