Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Werner Herzog is a mad genius who makes films about mad geniuses. This is the man who brought us Aguirre, The Wrath of God, about the maniacal conquistador who went on an insane search for El Dorado; Fitzcarraldo, about the man who dreamed of hauling a riverboat over a mountain so he could build an opera house in the jungle; and Grizzly Man, one of the most vividly haunting documentaries in recent years, dissecting the oddly engaging story of Timothy Treadwell, who made a home with grizzly bears in Alaska.
Herzog's latest film is Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, a gonzo reimagining...or whimsical extension of...or vividly iconoclastic kindred installment to...Abel Ferrera's original Bad Lieutenant, the 1992 masterpiece about the irredeemable cop (Harvey Keitel) who went in search of redemption. Herzog's film is the second masterpiece made under the Bad Lieutenant name, succeeding because it doesn't merely attempt to retell or update the events of the original film, but to make another film altogether, using the raw notion of a cop sliding into his own private hell as its only inspiration and then spinning a tale of hysterical delirium. It is often harrowing, even more often hilarious, and always vividly, frighteningly riveting.
The film takes place in a Big Easy still reeling from the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, and the setting only aids the growing sense of chaotic grime. New Orleans' dreary melting pot of cultures and its state of post-tragedy unrest feeds into the burgeoning cycle of psychological anarchy of its central protagonist, Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), and McDonagh, in turn, does his part to feed the beast, perpetuating all manners and all levels of crime in the city he has sworn to protect.
McDonagh is a decorated cop who is promoted to Lieutenant on the heels of a debilitating back injury which leaves our "hero" in such excruciating pain that when the Vicodin stops working, cocaine becomes a logical substitute. McDonagh gradually slips from reality and becomes an individual profusely reliant on creating bad situations and then finding an unlawful way out. He uses contacts both on the police force and within New Orleans' vast network of seedy criminals to buy and sell drugs of all kinds while also getting into deep trouble with an underground bookie, using his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) as bait in a life-threatening situation involving top-level mob bosses...and the twisted mayhem doesn't end there. He snorts. He murders. He rapes. And sometimes he positions himself to do one of those things, but is too stoned to follow through.
McDonagh loses his grip while in the midst of the harrowing, long-term investigation of five murdered drug dealers from Senegal and their connections to the local kingpin, Big Fate (Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner). The film is sly in the way it operates more or less as a standard police procedural for its first act, then depicts McDonagh's gradual descent into hell, where eventually we can't be sure that anything we see is accurate, or even that it occurs at all. McDonagh becomes a psychological dirigible, gliding through the remnants of his tortured reality. The only thing that hinges him to the real world is his drive to solve his case, but in the meanwhile he occupies himself by committing his own string of heinous crimes and even associating himself with his supposed enemies.
And yes, as has been widely discussed, he sees visions of iguanas. He becomes consumed by them. What do the iguanas mean? Does it matter? Students of Herzog will know that the wacko German auteur has long been obsessed with photographing animals and famously putting them in his films as odd tangents that may or may not mean anything to the film in question. Here, McDonagh's nagging visions of iguanas is Herzog's most appropriate use of animal photography, fusing his own strange fixation with the deteriorating mental state of his protagonist. And now, if you haven't already clicked away after reading a paragraph-long dissection of iguana photography, let's move on.
Cage delivers his most viscerally brilliant performance in years as McDonagh, who becomes one of the most imposing madcap anti-heroes the cinema has seen in a long time. His work is perfectly captured by Herzog, who values lunacy and uses it as the basis for his art. Their creation is a singular work of zany brilliance, not so much about seeking redemption as it is about falling completely out of touch with a world in which redemption is possible. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is a ridiculously entertaining, vividly engrossing depiction of a man's descent into madness, made by the cinema's foremost authority on mad men.