Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant

In Werner Herzog’s new film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, we are plunged into a savage world of moral ambiguity. The central character, played by Nicholas Cage in an amazing performance (to my mind his best outside of Leaving Las Vegas) is a grotesque anti-hero whose life is so out of control, it seems as if he is in a race to destroy himself before the forces he has unleashed do it for him. He lurches through the movie like a crazed balding hunchback, guzzling drugs and abusing people.

Herzog punctuates the film with bizarre interludes where the lens fixates on iguanas or breakdancing crack hallucinations, or in the case of the deeply evocative opening sequence, a snake as it swims through brown floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Katrina. Though the performances of the actors unfortunately fail to conjure the Southern setting, visually the film is a rich exploration of a devastated, depressed New Orleans. No picturesque shots of Bourbon Street here, but a trip to the lower 9th ward and back to the halls of power. Decaying houses, crumbling tenements, slick casinos, cocaine nosebleed hotel rooms, claustrophobic office interiors.

Despite the film’s moments of visual experimentation, Port of Call New Orleans is conventional in some successful ways: it is a very gripping linear narrative, and follows the ancient pattern of the hero’s journey through darkness and trial to a hard-won truth. The hero acquires a wound in the beginning, and the conclusion revisits and cures this wound.

The screenplay was penned by William Finkelstein, a veteran TV crime writer on shows such as NYPD Blue, Brooklyn South, LA Law, and many others. It deftly skirts the border of sleazy pulp, crime realism, and high psychodrama, with a series of shady characters and hard plot turns that call to mind classic film noir.

What unites Herzog, Finkelstein, and Cage’s Bad Lieutenant with the first Bad Lieutenant by Abel Ferrara? There is no common storyline or common character in the two films. Both are about a man in a position of power, trusted to represent the public good, coming to terms with absolute corruption, both in himself and others. Both films end up collapsing any easy ideas about good and evil, and demonstrating the disturbing possibility that evil may serve good, or good evil. Ferrara’s is still the more shocking film: it is also deeply Christian. Port of Call New Orleans doesn’t match its concern with theology and uncompromising conclusion, but it is more engrossing as a narrative.

I know I’m a sucker for contrast: show me the bleakest depths of the dark night of the soul, and then a glimmer of renewal seems twice as profound. If this is a trick, Port of Call New Orleans does it so well I don’t mind. There’s a scene when McDonough, the bad lieutenant, stumbles into a childhood hangout to show Frankie, his prostitute girlfriend and fellow narcotics addict, something he lost there. The acting, direction, and music all flow together in this scene to make it unforgettable. This film has its share of disgusting moments, but unlike many movies that zoom in on the grotesque side of human nature, Port of Call New Orleans does so for a reason.

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans is still playing in select theaters, and will be out on DVD this year.

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