One evening, during my youth, I was living in New Orleans and I came home completely inebriated. I lived in an old house in a bad neighborhood and am fairly certain that I was stumbling and shuffling to bed rather than walking. I remember turning on the light in my bedroom; and it must have been cold outside, because inside, there were two gigantic spiders, one each on a separate wall. As a testament to how fucked up I was, I have either exaggerated how big the spiders actually were or the spiders were so large that I was shocked into temporary sobriety...for at least a second. In any case, I passed out on the bed amongst my new neighbors. I came to in the morning with a massive hangover but I was spider-bite free. I rarely hallucinated when I was fucked up on non-hallucinogens, so I'm fairly certain that the spiders were there the night before. While my cottonmouth was subsiding that morning, I imagined that the two spiders had a dialogue over my unconscious body the night before. After discussing whether or not to envenom my body and drink my blood, they concluded to not do so, as drinking my blood would, ironically, cause toxic shock to their own systems and instantly kill them. They decided to peacefully squat in my bedroom, rent-free, for the evening and at dawn, the duo slipped out of the house and back out on to the streets.
There is a moral or a lesson to the above story, I'm certain; but I could care less what it is. There are two reasons why I relate that story now: 1) I like stories; and 2) I recalled this memory while watching The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (2009) and felt it was appropriate to relate in this review.
Nicholas Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans police officer who suffers a back injury in the line of duty; and as a result of his injury and courageous (?) act, he is promoted to Lieutenant in the police force. His back injury is only treatable by pain management, and McDonagh develops a fondness for narcotics. This burgeoning fondness for narcotics has enhanced rather than retarded his corrupt police nature, which includes gambling, shaking down citizens for the drugs on their persons, blackmail, and other related activity. He has a soft spot for gorgeous, high-class prostitute, Frankie Donnenfield, portrayed by Eva Mendes. After his promotion, the dramatic action of the film begins.
German filmmaker, Werner Herzog, directed The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, who was, by 2009, a veteran filmmaker whose work often surpassed both his contemporaries and predecessors. His work is so unique that while viewing one realizes that only Herzog could create the images shown. There are few whose work is this unique. What is so beautiful about Bad Lieutenant is that there is evidence of an older filmmaker’s conservatism and staid technique combined with his youthful vibrancy and playfulness. Let’s start with an example of the crazy shit, first.
Reptiles. I can only imagine hearing that familiar German accent tell his film crew that he wants to shoot the P.O.V. of an actual alligator. No, he is not going to use the camera’s point of view to substitute for the alligator’s point of view. The director, with the technological tools at his disposal, is going to affix a camera near the alligator’s head and shoot footage. I wonder if the alligator was cool with that. Probably not. I wonder whom in the crew would perform this daring act for his director and further wonder if that person was cool with it. The answer to the latter question is moot, because Herzog actually includes that daring shot within Bad Lieutenant. I suppose the alligator P.O.V. inclusion kind of goes with the tone of the story: dreamy and funky and drug-addled. Cage’s McDonagh probably has narcotics in his system throughout the whole picture, and the world must look this way to him from time to time. Then again, is Herzog just having fun? The reptilian P.O.V. continues in a later scene with two lizards, and Herzog literally puts on the ritz with the lizards. The lizards are obviously scared having a camera in their face (and being manipulated by crazy humans), so they hiss and shiver during the scene. Herzog plays a jazzy tune during this sequence, and it appears as if the lizards are dancing. In one shot, while one lizard hisses, it appears to be crooning along with soundtrack. This is just funny and playful and quintessential Herzog.
Behind all the wonderful visuals and the sensational scenes of drug use and violence and related insanity, there is a really affecting story. The primary relationship in the film is between McDonagh and Frankie. Initially, I thought that Mendes would replicate her role from Training Day and be the sexy girlfriend to the crooked cop, making a short appearance. Wrong. In a masterful scene, three thugs come hunting for McDonagh at Frankie’s apartment. The main goon demands fifty-thousand dollars in cash from McDonagh as compensation for an earlier disrespectful act. In addition to the fifty thousand, the two sub-goons want to fuck Frankie. McDonagh tells the main goon that Frankie looks like shit, so it would be best to let her clean up first and he summons Frankie to the bathroom. While Frankie is out of the room, McDonagh buys himself two days to come up with the fifty-thousand dollars and persuades the main goon to agree to let his cronies fuck Frankie during that later date. Alone in the bathroom, Mendes stares into the mirror putting on eye liner. She looks as if she is about to cry. As an endearing touch, she highlights with her pencil her beauty mark on her right cheek. After the thugs leave, McDonagh comes in to comfort her. It’s bittersweet, because she cannot tell if McDonagh was being serious or bluffing. Would he really let those two thugs fuck her right then and there? Does he really care about her? The answers come later in the film. Needless to say, Mendes is pretty terrific in the film, and I was quite impressed with her performance.
Cage deserves kudos as well. He really looks like a monster in Bad Lieutenant. He is always grinding his teeth and always oscillating in tone, from tired to animated. The back injury that he suffers at the beginning of the film is always present to the viewer. It’s a clever and subtle touch--this is a character who always has to be quick on his feet to come up with a lie or get out of a potentially dangerous situation. Yet, Herzog has his main character shuffling and limping throughout the whole picture.
I’m glad that I saw Bad Lieutenant far removed from its premiere. I initially regretted missing an opportunity to see it at a New Orleans film festival but now am not. I cannot remember anything that I originally read about it, and the hype wasn't present to cloud my viewing. Bad Lieutenant was refreshing and unexpected during its whole runtime. Most importantly, Bad Lieutenant made me think Herzog thoughts and recall Herzog-ian memories. What a filmmaker.