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Drawn and French Quartered

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)

Lena Herzog/66th Venice Film Festival

“Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” — which director Werner Herzog only made when screenwriter William Finkelstein gave him “a solemn oath” that it wasn’t a remake of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” — is as much about a particular idea of post-Katrina New Orleans as it is the bad lieutenant of its title. It’s a depiction of a fevered, lawless world of decay, in which morality and the proper modes of human conduct have fallen by the wayside. The forces of good have left for drier ground, and all that’s left are the looters, exploiters and the drugged.

It's powerful material for Mr. Herzog, a premiere chronicler of the madness of men, and Nicolas Cage, who brings a fevered intensity to every project he takes on. The synergy of these two unique talents, who’ve throughout their careers managed to stand apart from cultural norms and the pressures of mainstream expectations, results in an inspired foray into deranged headspace. Blending the freewheeling spirit of Mr. Herzog’s documentaries with the surrealistic, observational qualities of his best fiction work, it’s a characteristically unique portrait of obsession set in a heightened world that never descends into self-parody.

Mr. Cage plays New Orleans police Lt. Terence McDonagh, who is in the opening scenes honored for his bravery in freeing a prisoner from a flood while he simultaneously lays the foundations of an ever worsening drug addiction. In the internal struggle for his soul that follows, the narcotics win out. Through the course of the film, Terence descends down a harrowing path that finds him in trouble with brutal gangsters, partnering up with murderous drug pushers and open to any sort of misdeed or indiscretion if it helps him acquire the drugs he badly needs. As if all that weren’t enough for one man to take, menacing iguanas start appearing in his fevered hallucinations.

The movie has an ambling quality to it, functioning as less of a cohesively shaped narrative than a loosely-connected one featuring a series of events that steamroll towards a dénouement. It’s an approach that reflects Terence’s mindset, as he grows ever more unhinged the longer he spends traversing New Orleans’s perverse, ravaged terrain. Although he seems tough and in control, the sort of fearless hombre one should never mess with, the brilliance of the character and Mr. Cage’s performance are the very real suggestions that he’s anything but. The anger and the aggressive showy behavior function as coping mechanisms for what’s really inside: a profound helplessness, brought on as much by the decay of the city as his personal failings.

Mr. Herzog, working with longtime cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, depicts a city coming apart at its seams. Ramshackle, rundown neighborhoods and bleak industrial yards dominate. Drugs and crime are everywhere, from the wealthiest penthouse to the most depressing, rubble-strewn remnant of Katrina’s destruction. The mobile camera, stylistic flourishes (such as a John Woo-style shootout, complete with slow motion) and close-ups on Mr. Cage as he literally transforms his character by adopting wild expressions, stooping over and garbling his words all enhance the sense of a corrupt city eating away at whatever morality’s left.

Save for its final shot, “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” forgoes the contemplative qualities that have so distinguished Mr. Herzog’s recent films. Instead, it reveals a filmmaker with a keen sense of how to manipulate the thriller and film noir forms to fit a specific brand of nuttiness. Mr. Herzog perfects the challenge of blending conventional elements with his characteristic taste for the absurd, to draw out the character of a particular location at a particular time while allowing his audience to viscerally connect to the perfect storm of existential disasters that collectively create Lt. McDonagh.


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