How many times have we seen the bad-cop movie done and re-done? It’s become a cliche, at least since Training Day, if not much earlier. The movies have always reveled in undermining traditionally secure social roles and structures, and so since the earliest days of Hollywood we’ve known that not all cops are good. If there was any doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s own phobias translated into a series of morally questionable law enforcement figures.
This being the case, no doubt many audiences shrugged off Werner Herzog’s film Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans as either just another “bad cop” movie, or just another Nicolas Cage movie. This is, quite assuredly, neither of the above.
Herzog, a prominent German filmmaker, has been around for ages but is only well-known among arthouse fans. Regardless of what one thinks of usual “arthouse” fare, this should at least suggest that Herzog’s films are typically well-thought-through and have an artistic bent to them.
The world Herzog presents in Bad Lieutenant is the anti-Inland Empire. It’s immediately post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. So while we share the heat in common, we can’t hold a candle up to the humidity of the Deep South. And while we may get the occasional “storm,” we know nothing of the experience of a Katrina-like monsoon, to say nothing of a hurricane. On this basis, we southern California types may struggle to relate to the experience of Cage’s character, Lt. Terrence McDonagh, but it is essential to make the effort.
Having injured himself in a haphazard attempt to rescue a submerged prison inmate, McDonagh is cursed with chronic back pain and an accompanying limp for the rest of the film. This gesture on McDonagh’s part is curious at the outset, as he has already established himself as a morally questionable authority figure. As the film progresses, we are witness to McDonagh’s slow but steady descent into the dregs of those who attempt to profit personally off of the tragic misfortunes of others in a place still reeking of death and destruction.
In this way, McDonagh’s character is nearly the polar opposite of that of Cleo (Clive Owen) in Children of Men, another film from the last few years that deals with the question of survival in a place laid waste by disaster. Unlike Cleo’s positive transformation, however, McDonagh wallows in his vice and indignity. Rather than jumping at the opportunity to rise above his circumstances – even while limping just like Theo – Cage’s character escapes into the world of the non-real via hallucinogenic narcotics. While Theo quits drinking and smoking (proclaiming to a fellow character that such medicines “aren’t working”), McDonagh ups his intake.
Ironically, though, the consequences of McDonagh’s debauchery run contrary to our expectations. Herzog shows the audience that their expectations are informed by an inner sense of unrealistic justice, the kind of justice that often doesn’t exist in a world of corruption. The film refuses to slice anything in simple terms; nothing here is black or white.
In a frighteningly real study of the human psyche under duress in trying circumstances, Bad Lieutenant delivers an admonishment to any who would presume to know themselves without being forced to do so.