Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Werner Herzog is insane. Completely, utterly, bat-shit insane. From being shot in the stomach during an interview and calmly remarking, “We are being shot at. We should leave,” (worth tracking down on YouTube), to eating his own shoe for a bet (which he filmed and released under the fairly ambiguous title, Werner Herzog Eats His Own Shoe), Herzog has got several screws loose. It’s fortunate, then, that he also happens to be an inspired genius, whose intense love of filmmaking sees him churning out bizarre and stunning films on an annual basis. With Bad Lieutenant, Herzog has outdone himself, producing his best non-documentary directorial effort in over a decade.

Superficially, a simple plot synopsis gives no indication that this is anything other than a bog-standard thriller, as it follows a corrupt cop whose addiction to various drugs sees him pushed to the edge of insanity and way past the law. The tagline – “The only criminal he can’t catch… is himself” – is equally disheartening, as is the notion that this might be a remake of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. Thankfully, Herzog’s film is entirely original (borrowing only the title and a cop with a drug problem) and there’s no evidence here that he is in any danger of selling out. Under the guise of conventionality, he has directed a bewilderingly brilliant film.

Much of the credit should go to Nicholas Cage as Terrence McDonagh, the titular lieutenant, whose unhinged performance is eerily reminiscent of Herzog’s egomaniacal muse, the late Klaus Kinski. It’s the best thing Cage has done in years, as he discards his recent banal performances (National Treasure, Knowing and Bankok Dangerous, to name just a few) and emerges as the bug-eyed lunatic he once was. In 1989, Cage happily ate a live cockroach on camera for Vampire’s Kiss, and just over 20 years later, he’s finally unleashing that kind of crazy once more. Yet his drug-addled performance isn’t just mentally unstable – it’s also heartfelt. When he starves an elderly lady of her oxygen tube in order to pursue a lead, he inexplicably remains sympathetic. His insanity may be deliriously entertaining, but it’s also quietly tragic, as we can see his mental faculties gradually dribbling out of his ears.

The setting is also perfectly suited to Herzog’s sensibilities, as McDonagh travels around New Orleans in its post-Katrina squalor and decay. Weeds and moss seem to infect every street, while when an alligator lies on the road with its stomach burst open, none of the characters care to mention this fact. Indeed, reptiles are a recurring obsession in the film – McDonagh sees non-existent iguanas on his coffee table, and finds it mildly terrifying. This is nature as hostile and barely controlled, and William Finkelstein’s script completely aligns itself with Herzog’s view that the world contains only chaos, disharmony and murder.

Strange and unpredictable, Bad Lieutenant is the unfiltered hallucination of a 67-year-old Bavarian madman, and you won’t see a more thrillingly deranged film all year.

Originally published by Cherwell, in print and online, on 23/05/2010.

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