Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Herzog 2009)

The narrative of Noah’s Ark is one which has left a great imprint upon Western culture, as its imagery of a world being purified of evil by a great flood has offered a striking mix of apocalyptic imagery and hope for people to tap into. It is this narrative that serves as the vital intertext for Werner Herzog’s 2009 black comedy crime drama Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans, as the film is set in the wake of the titular city’s near destruction from Hurricane Katrina. Port of Call - New Orleans however is anything but a modern run through of the Noah’s Ark story, instead subverting the original story as the “purifying” flood leaves behind only the corrupt and the impoverished innocent to rebuild the city.

Port of Call - New Orleans follows a lieutenant named Terrance McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), who suffers from an injured back resulting from his saving a criminal from drowning in a jail cell. Due to the fact that his back pain will last an indefinite length of time, likely for the rest of his life, McDonagh is prescribed pain killers, which he quickly abuses before moving onto harder drugs. As his addiction grows, McDonagh finds himself dealing with a murder case, an out of control gambling debit, a hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendez) who makes a well connected enemy, and an alcoholic father with and equally addicted step wife.

While hardly an art film, Port of Call - New Orleans is a film which actively works against traditional narrative structure and storytelling, rejecting concepts of cause and effect in order to present a tale of a man and city that, while progressively becoming more obvious in how twisted and corrupt they are, don’t progress or regress so much as remain stagnate in their state of failure. Characters pay lip service to change, and some seek to change the city, but it is all hollow: things are only able to get better enough to allow the real problems go unaddressed. This is encapsulated in a particularly hilarious and tragic moment when McDonagh’s girlfriend says that she is going to an AA meeting to sober up, but proceeds to say a moment later that she is open to possibly getting high with McDonagh afterwards. Moreover, the film is book ended by scenes which embody the meaning of the words “failing upwards,” underlining how futile the possibility of salvation is in the world of the film. Thus, the film is of a counter point to the salvation narrative of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 crime drama Bad Lieutenant, which Port of Call - New Orleans is only superficially associated with in regards to content.

While this material could easily have transformed into a grim and depressing work, Herzog instead takes the material into an openly comedic terrain, bringing a detached and ironic tone to the film as we watch the increasingly absurd existence of McDonagh. The approach simultaneously manages to make the material palitable as well as highten the sense of tragedy, as moments of real horror rise to the surface of the film to contrast the overall humour. Herzog populates the film with a cast of characters equal in their flaws and insanity to McDonagh, transforming the New Orleans setting into a world misunderstandings, delusions, posturing and self absorbed behaviour, where characters find nostalgic magic in what appears to be a heroin stained spoon, and lucky crack pipes indeed seem to bring a demented sense of luck to their owners.

Speaking of lucky crack pipe owners, Cage is in fine form here as McDonagh. McDonagh isn’t so much a bad man as he is a pathetic one, being just human enough to avoid being a total monster, but just out of his mind enough to tether his sense of masculinity to his job as a police officer. McDonagh’s moments of extortion, excessive violence and outright theft are little more than attempts to show off his worth as a male to himself, a point underlined when he claims that a man without a gun isn’t a man. Cage’s performance takes on an increasingly unhinged quality, marked by shifts in vocal and physical performance over the course of the film. McDonagh transforms into a type of hunchbacked oddity typically found in a Universal horror film of the 1930s and 1940s, making his ability to function in the world at all increasingly baffling and comedic.

Mendez heads up a fine supporting cast, but isn’t given much to do beyond playing off of Cage as her character increasingly falls into the bizarre world of McDonagh’s father and step mother. Of greater note is Jennifer Cooliage as McDonagh’s step mother Genevieve. While a small roll, Genevieve is the closest thing to a truly human character in the film. While as much an addict as every other character, Genevieve is the only one whom seems to understand how sad and pathetic everyone’s existence in the film is, but takes some comfort in her attempts to understand and connect with her step son. Xzibit as the gangster sitting at the center of the murder case is fine, though the role never gives him the opportunity to flex much acting muscle, while Brad Dourif and Val Kilmer turn in solid performances in what are primarily extended cameos.

If the film belongs to anyone other than Cage however, it is director Herzog and cinematographer Peter Zeitlinger, who both walk a fine line between grounding the film while giving it a visual sense of a drug haze. The film is never quite subjective or objective in its point of view, frequently bouncing between McDonagh’s view point to a more observational view of events as we move from a handheld, documentary style to carefully composed shots. Herzog and Zeitlinger furthermore take full advantage of the New Orleans setting, allowing the stark and ruined streets and buildings seep into the frame, constantly imbuing the film with a sense of the real life chaos and impoverishment to play out before the audience.

While I personally find no fault with the film, Port of Call - New Orleans will likely be off putting to those expecting a traditional drama or thriller of the Hollywood mould. While highly entertaining, the film is one which in part asks the viewer to find humour in a series of volatile and shocking behaviour carried out by one man, and the film never once includes a condemnation of this behaviour within the narrative itself. It is a film where filmmakers expect the audience knows how horrific the content is, and go with the tone of the piece. If such an approach offends, simply consider yourself warned. Furthermore, fans of the original Bad Lieutenant might be turned off by what can be seen as a film which almost satirizes the themes of the original film. Personally, I believe the films to be counterpoints to one another rather than mere oppositions, but again, fans of the original should be warned.

Overall, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is one of the best films released in 2009, brining Nicolas Cage back to his darker roots and providing Herzog with one of his strongest film in his canon of work. In a film season where the likelihood of cinematic junk is high, the film is a worthwhile rental an antidote to the tame and conservative popcorn fare of the coming months.

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