***originally written 3 June 2010***
“You explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.”
So says Nicolas Cage whilst portraying Charlie Kaufman in Spike Jonze’s exceptional film Adaptation from 2002. The remark is part of a scathing assault on another’s stupidly-inept film pitch, a tired tirade against the bog-standard cinema conventions. Funny then that 8 years on, Cage should end up delving head first into this exact cliché for The Bad Leuitenant. Fortunately, The Bad Lieutenant is not bog-standard in any shape or form. And Cage also gives his finest performance since Adaptation. Easily.
He inhabits the role of Lt. Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans detective who, after an uncharacteristic display of heroics, is left with a severe back injury that quickly gets him hooked on painkillers and then drugs. Any drugs. Whatever he can find, confiscate or just plain steal. It’s a tremendously physical performance. Cage is stiff and stilted throughout. A building half fallen down.
But we are not here to watch the final collapse. Not exactly. Cage has been here before in Leaving Las Vegas (one of those other all-too-rare virtuoso performances that show the man’s flighty brilliance) in which he portrayed a man committed to drinking himself to death. McDonagh shares the same self-destructive nature for sure, but the film isn’t simply a downward spiral. This is more a crazed character study, and a requiem for New Orleans itself.
The parallels between McDonagh and the city are obvious; both left weak and debilitated by an unforseen event, both in dire need for help they aren’t getting. It’s no accident the film is set there. And veteran director Werner Herzog imbues the film with the humid rot and ruin of the city simply and effectively, as McDonagh prowls from affluent business districts to devastated suburbs. A recurring motif of threatening animals – snakes, alligators, sharks – runs through the film. As crazy as these events are, they are merely happenings in a hostile world. Nature doesn’t care about our problems.
The plot is thin. A gangland murder case needs solving. In fact anyone pinning their hopes on this being a complex whodunnit will be particularly displeased when the case-aspect of the story is cast-off in a two-sentence explanation near the film’s end (in a wrap-it-up sequence so blatantly contrived as to surely be purposefully baiting – I found it hilarious). No, The Bad Lieutenant is more interested in just experiencing McDonagh’s downfall, which is by turns extremely funny and downright disturbing. Is it leading anywhere? Do things get worse and worse? That’s hard to say. The film’s darkest moment is relatively early on, as McDonagh shakes down a couple leaving a club for their crack. Herzog balances the scene expertly. It is thrillingly uncomfortable, helped no end by Mark Isham’s score (which is excellent throughout).
McDonagh is a hard man to feel sympathetic for. And I’d be hard-pushed to say exactly whether I was rooting for him or not. It’s not so easy as that. And the ending will divide opinions across the board, depending on what you expect from a film. Should an amoral character get his comeuppance? Should he learn anything? Should he be saved?
There are many more aspects that I could address. There is support from Eva Mendes, Brad Dourif (always a pleasure to see), Val Kilmer and Xzibit. And Jennifer ‘Stifler’s Mom’ Coolidge, who is virtually unrecognisable here. But this is Cage’s show. If anyone upstages him, it’s Herzog himself, who has crafted a thoroughly unexpected, gonzo cop thriller, resplendent with surreal detours and memorable characters. And iguanas. Don’t trust the iguanas.
This isn’t a film for everyone, as evidenced by the extreme differing opinions within the little group I saw it with. But for me it’s a vital snapshot of cinema right now. A classic in the making. And the film to beat this year.