New Orleans Film Festival Review: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant

By Michael Gottwald 2009-10-26 21:53:36discussion comments
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New Orleans Film Festival Review: Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant image
Our friend Michael Gottwald, a filmmaker based in New Orleans, attended that city's film festival a few weeks back and caught one of the first-ever screenings of Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. He wrote in with his reaction after seeing the film in the city that inspired it.

The New Orleans Film Festival celebrated its 20th year this month with the city more of a filmmaking mecca than ever. Tax incentives have thrust Louisiana into the Hollywood spotlight, and it’s now the third most popular state to make films, after New York and California. As the studios rush in for just months at a time, the locals find work, but the independent film scene is still in search of strong roots. The Festival itself reflects this: it’s characterized by a dearth of quality between the large, studio-backed quasi-independent releases of the Oscar season (Precious, etc.), and extremely independent, do-it-yourself low budget docs and features, some with a local flavor, that disappoint more often than they surprise. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans falls into the first category, but unlike most Hollywood films that pass through town, it aimed to tell a local story, and certainly was destined to surprise. 

In fact the concept and execution of Bad Lieutenant were always rooted in the defiance of expectations. In the press was director Werner Herzog, vocalizing uncaring irreverence for the original film, in the face of its outraged creator Abel Ferrara. And online there was the trailer—the god awful trailer, when, like disapproving parents, we shook our head and sighed at the sight of another embarassment in the depreciating career of Nicolas Cage, and furrowed our brow, concerned at Herzog’s choice to return to fiction filmmaking.  

And how wrong we were. What Herzog delivers is nothing short of deliciously bewildering. “I call upon the theoreticians of cinema to go after this one,” he said, of his latest work. “Go for it, losers.” I am but a reviewer, but I’ll give it a try.  

Nicolas Cage stars as New Orleans cop Terence McDonough, and the film opens with his performance of a saintly act. In the amoral chaos of Katrina, the flood threatens to take the life of a prisoner stuck in his Parish jail cell. McDonough, though immediately evident as a swaggering, unscrupulous douchebag, decides to do the right thing and save the guy. In the process, however, he suffers a back injury that garners him an accolade from the police department, and an addiction to painkillers from the doctor. Six months later, the fallout from that fateful weekend has taken a toll: the city’s crime wave is cresting, and McDonough’s meds are going straight up his nose. He’s spurred to action by the murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, evidently tied to a city drug lord named Big Fate.  

At first Cage’s character takes on the case with the fervor of a dedicated detective, but as painkillers lead to cocaine and cocaine leads to heroin, he becomes all fervor, no case. In a matter of few, sweaty minutes, he’ll go from pointedly interrogating witnesses and possible accomplices to using the same anxious aggression to demand drugs off them. When challenged, he flashes his badge like it’s some sort of food stamp for dope. He flails through the criminal underworld with all the grace of an intoxicated albatross, while somewhere in the background, his prostitute girlfriend (Eva Mendes) nurses her own habit in their high-rise apartment, and out in the bayou his dad (Tom Bower) recovers from his own career as a cop with a substance abuse problem. These two are meant to comprise a fragile pair of broken souls, but as McDonough gets in deeper, compiling huge debts to his sports bookie and finding himself on the wrong side of the mob, they begin to look pretty stable in comparison.

Herzog has made a career molding obsession from ambition in memorable tragic heroes, but here they have an inverse relationship. McDonough’s drive as a detective is fueled by his all-encompassing addiction; the funny thing is, the case goes nowhere. Herzog severs plot from character so we get a front row seat as McDonogh’s drifts towards self-immolation. He holds an elderly woman hostage by her breathing tube, has hallucinations of swamp reptiles at crime scenes, and for one third of the movie, adopts some sort of strange, Richard Nixon meets Edward G. Robinson accent, for no apparent reason.

Sure, every once in a while Cage’s character pushes the plot around, but with no progress or support, it comes off like he’s erratically kicking a dead horse. With every bridge burnt and new debt owed, it seems less likely that McDonough can recover from this flame-out trajectory, and when the concluding demands of the genre come calling, Herzog would rather cut his losses in the plausibility department than curtail his hero’s total bender. 

If this all sounds a little humorous, it’s because it is.  

Like Precious, another film I saw at the New Orleans Film Festival, this is a movie where the writer and director seem to have totally divergent goals. While screenwriter William Finkelstein aims for nothing more than to turn out a hard-boiled genre exercise about a sinful cop in a seedy town, Herzog, on the other hand, produces what to most people will come across as a skewering parody of those very same police procedurals. But that’s mistaking Herzog’s self-awareness for a sense of irony; he has the former, but has never had much use for the latter. This case is no exception: when McDonough’s descent reaches the realm of the ludicrous, is Herzog being sincere? Always. But does he find it as funny as we do? Of course.  

And this is why the film will have a special place in the midnight movie circuit—because Herzog’s pushing of the genre envelope till it nearly bursts offers the perfect cinematic space for Nicolas Cage to cross a similar border: from hammy Hollywood trash, to post-modern, self-caricaturing perfection. Like the ubiquitous Wicker Man clips on YouTube? In Herzog, Cage has found a director who unshackles him from the weighty (and, in the case of Neil LaBute’s movie, often extremely dubious) demands of plot, and lose himself in the darker, more manic depths of the character... to sometimes comedic effect. Like Herzog, he’s as earnest as ever, but finally we’re laughing with him, and not at him. 

Though the New Orleans film community is rapidly growing, the crowd at the screening seemed uniformly bemused at Cage’s balls-to-the-wall performance, and appreciative that the movie managed to capture New Orleans as a mysterious, colorful, violent place… without a single shot in the French Quarter. There were no shadowy saloons, no gaudy voodoo queens—Cage is the burlesque here. The audience proudly bore witness to how each element of their town—its locations, its actors, its own myth—were used to bring out his performance, all too happy to provide the scenery for him to chew on. 

That’s what Herzog has cooked up here: a work that evokes the vivid, tense atmosphere of its setting and story, while simultaneously juicing that tension and the limits of its genre for horror and laughs. Go for it, Werner. 
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