During the first week of November I had the great fortune of working on an independent film with a talented crew that included my sister and several of her friends. It was on set that I learned that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was directed by Werner Herzog. THE Werner Herzog. I immediately went to my laptop and confirmed his involvement which had somehow evaded my watchful eye when I first saw the trailer. I was immediately excited to see what an art house legend would do with, what seemed to be, a run-of-the-mill cop movie.
From the trailer I gleaned that this would be an action packed film, with guns, drugs, sex and violence. Well, it was and it wasn’t. About 30 minutes into the film I realized that, as expected, Herzog created a cop film unlike any other. Bad Lieutenant is 121 minute character study of deterioration delivered brilliantly by Nicholas Cage. After a heroic rescue of an inmate, Cage’s Terence McDonagh learns that he will have to live his life in pain and he will have to find a way to deal with it. The result is that McDonagh plays the hand he is dealt, however unfair, but he does so by his own rules. While investigating a murder of an innocent family he scores drugs from criminals, accepts sex as a bribe, sleeps with a prostitute (Eva Mendes) and acts as her pimp, makes illegal bets, and the list goes on. Herzog let’s us watch from McDonagh’s skewed perspective as he begins to lose his grasp on reality, imagining iguanas and crocodiles out of thin air and witnessing the soul of a slain Mafioso break dance in front of him.
Like all good films about crime, the question of good vs. evil is raised. Herzog toys with convention; he delivers all the ingredients necessary to make Bad Lieutenant like any other cop film, had it been directed by anyone else. There is no elaborate or contrived set up for how McDonagh becomes involved with Big Fate. It happens and the audience is allowed to watch and wonder, as he continues to spiral downward, what is he doing? McDonagh‘s problems pile up and the question becomes not will he die but when and by whose hand. But just when everything is stacked against him, it all comes together, almost as if it were a dream. As McDonagh sits at his desk, all his problems walk through the door and announce their departure in a scene that was so surreal I turned to my friend and stated that it had to be another drug induced hallucination. And again I was wrong because that would have been too easy.
Herzog could have let McDonagh spiral down into his own demise and be murdered by any number of conspirators, but instead everything works out. It is revealed that McDonagh had only worked with Big Fate to plant evidence linking him to the murders. In the end McDonagh is ironically awarded a medal, his father and stepmother reconcile, and his prostitute girlfriend-turned-wife is pregnant. At the medal ceremony, no one drinks and the audience is led to believe that everything has changed. And then, brilliantly, Herzog shows us that McDonagh hasn’t changed at all, reiterating that the same pain he had at the beginning he will have for life.
Bad Lieutenant ends with McDonagh running into the inmate that he saved at the beginning of the film. The man tells him that since that incident he has walked the straight and narrow. The contrast is obvious: two men start as polar opposites and finish as polar opposites switching sides in the meantime. The man offers to help McDonagh who, after thinking about the offer, replies, “Do you think fish dream?” There is no help for Terence, the pain will never go away.
Completely surreal, Bad Lieutenant, makes no explanation for reality. Good deeds are sometimes rewarded with pain and bad deeds are sometimes necessary to achieve good. Cage is wonderful as McDonagh, creating laughter, surprise and awe, often at the same time. When he pulls a wheelchair-ridden old woman’s oxygen tank to get information the audience does not know whether to laugh or scream, to be outraged or pleased. Herzog refused to simplify; instead he presented Terence McDonagh to the audience and let them be the judge. You may not like Terence’s methods, but you have to love his results.