Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant is not Abel Ferrara’s. Where Harvey Keitel’s anonymous monster wallowed in Catholic guilt and debilitating corruptions of mind and body, Nic Cage’s Terry McDonagh appears almost gleeful as he pitches down the road to ruin. His pain is less punishment than righteous realignment, a reflection of the nutty, debased, and utterly chaotic world around him. He’s not deviant. His debasement is more like a new normal.
This point is made ironically clear in the first moments of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Pretending to be cynical and tough in the aftermath of Katrina, Terry happens on a prisoner trapped in his still-flooding cell. Though he tells his partner Stevie (Val Kilmer) that he’s loathe to spoil his expensive underwear, Terry can’t seem to help himself, leaping into the snake-infested water (yes, it’s mightily symbolic: this is a Herzog movie). For this effort, he earns a commendation and eternal back pain, which leads him to medicate himself, pretty much indiscriminately. While the doctors prescribe Vicodin, Terry is soon enough confiscating drugs (and sex acts) from young partiers he stalks on the streets or from the PD property room. He collects extra to deliver to his drug-addict-prostitute girlfriend Frankie (Eva Mendes), whom also protects from bad johns (or at least seeks not-so-smart vengeance on those who leave her with a black eye).
All this excess leads Terry into conflicts with the usual suspects, including his increasingly impatient bookie Ned (Brad Dourif) and captain (Vondie Curtis-Hall), as well as his new partner Armand (Shawn Hatosy) and local crime mucky-muck Big Fate (Xzibit). He’s also entangled in an actual case, that is, solving the murders of a Senegalese family, for which he needs help from a frightened and very young witness, Daryl (Denzel Whitaker).
Terry (whose unhingedness recalls Cage’s remarkable work back in Vampire’s Kiss) pursues the boy doggedly, a process seems more habit, a means of giving his day a structure, than actual interest in “justice,” but that also produces one of the movie’s most alarming scenes. Deciding that he might solicit information from Daryl’s grandmother, Binnie (Irma P. Hall), Terry invades the nursing home where she works. His breakdown is preposterous: he lurches from behind the bedroom door of Binnie’s client, muttering, “Children were executed!” When the white lady threatens to call his superior, Terry bears down, nearly suffocating her while holding a gun to her head. Furious at the white woman’s money and entitlement, her capacity to make decisions affecting his own life and his own impotence, Terry hisses, “Maybe you should just drop dead, you selfish cunt. You fucks, I hate you both.”
Just as you may be thinking Terry has descended to irredeemable depths, however, it becomes clear that Bad Lieutenant: POCNO is charting another course. Rather than exploring bad and good, it’s looking at how such concepts are imagined and sustained. Terry is bad, yes, in some generic and at least partly stable moral world. But in New Orleans after the storm, in the world as it is — unstable, desperate, comprised of sequential crises — Terry, addicted to everything, keeps afloat. This even though he’s not especially smart or perceptive or even cogent; rather, it makes no difference what he chooses to do. The high is by definition temporary and the comedown is always wretched. Why make choices at all?
Still, and maybe strangely, he does. Even in Aftermath NO, he hangs onto that archaic cop code, the one that says cases must be solved, or justice must be done. The city per se is an aesthetic and political occasion more than a place: you never see enough of it to know quite where Terry has pitched himself. As he careens from site to site, he’s not so much building his investigation of the crime as he is falling more completely inside himself: doors and windows begin to look like frames around a receding outside world.
It’s certainly striking to see Terry, as if from a drugstore clerk’s perspective, flaunting his gun to prove he’s a cop (even as it’s also the sign of his criminality, the tool he sues to scare suspects into coughing up info or contraband). It’s also distressing to see him as Daryl does, as the white guy bad driver who promises nothing but trouble — no security, no future, no life. But the weirdest other way to see Terry is not even human.
Pausing during a stake-out to plan a next move, Terry and his crew stop looking through their cameras and windows. And suddenly, you’re looking at them in another context, alongside a couple of iguanas. Terry leans down to peer at them, and the film cuts to another texture altogether, hot-grainy-and-too-bright as one iguana appears to be lip-syncing Johnny Adams’ “Release Me.” The screen slants, Terry’s eyes go from squinty to wide, and the fragmentation of his experience seems to have entered another dimension: when he asks a fellow cop if he’s seen these creatures, Terry’s told that he’s on his own. But it’s unclear how much his hallucination is drug-induced and how much is premised on his other depravities, moral and emotional.
You glimpse him later from yet another reptilian view, a camera seemingly mounted over an alligator’s shoulder as it scuttles over grass and Terry shrinks in the blurry distance, flirting with a black-booted traffic cop (Fairuza Balk). Emblems of harsh nature living side by side with uncivilized humans, the iguanas are essentially jarring, breaks that focus attention on the fiction of good and bad, the banality of madness. Terry’s lost, but also, as Bad Lieutenant‘s unexpected finale suggests, weirdly found, in his addictions.