The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (Werner Herzog, 2009)
Produced in present-recession American and set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans is strangely one of the funniest films I have seen in recent memory. Under Herzog's crazed vision, New Orleans is given an exciting personality. It is a city that is at once coming to grips with a prolonged melancholy and suffering, struggling with an ever-growing frustration of being alienated socially and economically from the rest of the United States, and parading an unlikely carefree enthusiasm. It is a city that is externally atrophied, with its structures crumbling and its citizenry seemingly paralyzed by the floods. However, beneath the uninspiring facade is a dormant energy that reveals itself in infrequent moments of ecstatic madness. Herzog's New Orleans is simply a city that is delightfully two-faced: corrupted and moral, where the desperation is conveniently masked by an unwavering religious faith; and impoverished and promising, where the money generated by an underground economy betrays the obvious penury.
Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), the film's titular bad lieutenant, didn't start out bad. An asshole maybe, but bad, no. The film opens inside a flooded prison. A sea snake swims its way inside a locked cell, occupied by a forgotten prisoner. Terence and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) enter, talking about some stuff that their superior forgot while evacuating the building during Katrina's onslaught. A nonchalant conversation about their various indiscretions lead to the discovery of the hapless prisoner who desperately plead, to the two cops' twisted delight, to be let out before he drowns. After jokingly equating the prisoner's life with the expensive underwear his girlfriend bought for him, he suddenly jumps into the murky flood waters, and saves the prisoner, to the ample surprise of his partner (and probably Herzog's audience), who thought he had Terence all figured out as corrupt to the core. The heroic act becomes the impetus to a string of events. Terence gets diagnosed with a perpetual back ailment, causing him to walk with his shoulders automatically hunched to his head, to be completely dependent on illegal drugs, and to live his life with a devil-may-care attitude.
He also gets promoted to lieutenant and later on, gets assigned to solve a case of the massacre of a family of Senegalese immigrants. The police procedural aspect of the film is more of a frame for Terence's descent to corruption. Instead of meticulously mapping out the details of the police investigation, Herzog concentrates on depicting more interesting Terence's side-trips: to his girlfriend (Eva Mendes), for an easy lay; to the clubs, to stalk on youngsters who may be bullied for free drugs; to his dad and his stepmother, just for the reminder of the possibilities and probabilities of his fate; to his bookie, to haggle a failed bet in the hopes of reversing that fate by sheer luck. The case, by force of narrative, takes its own shape, intertwines itself with Terence's personal life, leaving the hapless lieutenant to have no choice but be bad, selling his soul and his badge to the very people he is tasked to eliminate, allowing himself to be a hostage of his own desperation. By film's end, after the unstopping and unbelievably entertaining descent of Terence to the lowest depths of human amorality, we get a sense of a world where corruption is not a decision but a phase, where the environment humanity struggles in, more than its own un-seldom decisions to transgress its self-made codes of propriety, is the primary mover for us to forget ourselves in order to simply survive.
Survival is what drives humanity. It is also what drives the rest of the world. This shared thirst to perpetuate ourselves in our environment becomes that inherent link we have with nature. Herzog's film is so conscious of this link that he often deviates from his narrative to simply observe animals: the swimming snake that opens the film; the colorful pet fish in the room of the murdered child; the crocodile by the highway; the imagined iguanas. These creatures' sudden spotlighted presence, while at first befuddling, creates an awareness that humanity, with its ongoing businesses in fixing its own affairs, does not exist within a vacuum. The similarities, like the cold-bloodedness or the predatory predispositions, are pushed forward, allowing us a sizable glimpse and a more-than-believable rationale as to why Terence is required to lose moral perceptions in order to persist. The proposition that I am making, that it is not us but circumstance that dictates our capacity for evil or even the theory that the concept evil is only a human invention, is admittedly cynical, one that has been conveniently drowned with Herzog's confidently unconventional directorial approach or Cage's effectively over-the-top portrayal of Terence.
Herzog's intent is clearly not to take corruption seriously, and this is where Herzog deviates from Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant (1992), where corruption is unflinchingly depicted as dirty and scary. When Terence suddenly appears from behind the door, with an automatic shaver on hand and chin and eyes twitching from exhaustion and lack of sleep, and proceeds to remove the oxygen tubes from an old woman, while extorting from the old woman's attendant the location of the lone witness to his case, the disgust over the reprehensible act is buried by the ludicrousness and ridiculousness of the attempt. The joke continues as Terence rationalizes his dastardly deed with an accusation that America is in such bad state because of rich old women like her victim. The wisdom of his retort is both humorous and enlightening. Humor is essential in driving the point. Again, after a sudden shoot-out where a drugged Terence is salvaged from death and debt by his shady new friends, the discomforting pact is punctuated by insanity when he insists that his friends shoot the dead man because "his soul is still dancing," and indeed, we see the man's soul break-dancing. Herzog's filmmaking is as over-the-top, as self-consciously hilarious, as his actor's portrayal and it works, it works wondrously.
Herzog simply leaves no room for remorse or introspection, because there is nothing to be remorseful for. Contrary to popular belief, corruption is an fact the act of fate, while nobility is the choice. Animals, programmed only to survive the longest, are all victims and agents of fate, such as a crocodile that wanders too far into the highway and is ran over. We, however, have the choice to forgo survival and sacrifice. We are reminded of our perceived nobility and when that reminder comes, all one can do is reminisce, laugh and move on. Terence, in the end of the film, is reminded of that noble act that preluded his deterioration when the prisoner he rescues from the flood, now a hotel bellboy, recognizes him despite the effects of cocaine that he has been consuming, as the cop that gave him another chance at life. The two end up in an aquarium, with a giant glass separating them from the fish. What ultimately separates humanity from the rest of the world is that we are, although we may often choose to forgo of it, have the capacity for nobility. That Terence McDonagh, the baddest of bad lieutenants, has exercised such capacity for nobility, no matter how long ago that was or how spontaneous the decision was, expresses that important distinction men have from the the rest of this wild fog-eat-dog world.