Saturday, December 5, 2009

Movies: The Bad Lieutenant

I walked into Werner Herzog’s new movie knowing nothing else about it—not that it was a “remake” of a 1992 Ferrara film, not that it starred Nick Cage, not that it would be filled with pulpy drug use, sex, and violence. Each of those facts may have turned me away from the theater (isn’t it a bit soon to be remaking a film from the 90s?), but Herzog’s directorship turned out to be the only essential fact. For while this is an obscenely over-the-top, Tarantino-meets-Lynch parade of human filth—the waxy-faced crooked cop, the soft-focus prostitute with two black eyes, the bombastic black drug king—the irony is constantly interrupted by Herzog’s tenderness for the true human types that circulate in that world—the African family shot dead in their home, the beer-soaked skin of a sad country girl who can’t understand why her lover goes to AA, the bone-thin black teenage mothers who come to the door when Cage’s McDonagh comes knocking at their shack looking for drug-dealing boyfriends hiding in the chiffarobe.

But aside from the constant play between pulp’s crass, cold hyperbole and documentary’s careful, compassionate honesty, there is the Herzog wildcard: a sudden shift out of plot and into a strange existential meditation on the beautiful absurdity and madness of life. In Encounters at the End of the World, a documentary about a scientific encampment in the Arctic, this meant following a suicidal penguin as he scuttled away from the flock and into the frame’s vanishing point, inland, away from the shore’s feeding grounds. In Lieutenant, breaks in McDonagh’s consciousness come with shots of iguanas that no one else sees. Herzog films these strange, scaly creatures with his National Geographic-style love of the wild; surrounded by prismatic light, their bulging eyes pulse, their horny skin still. Herzog uses a kind of lizard-cam so that we see the room from the iguana’s eyes, or, once, from the eyes of a crocodile slithering away from the site of a car wreck on the side of the road (where another croc’s insides are strewn across the street).

And the film’s “happy ending,” which sees the murder of the African family solved, the drug king pinned to the crime thanks to a (planted) DNA-kissed “lucky crack pipe”, the prostitute clean, married, and pregnant with McDonagh’s child, and the bad Lieutenant promoted to Corporal, doesn’t leave us with the couple kissing at the door (too soft and bright), or McDonaugh then snorting a pile of cocaine in a hotel room immediately after (too dark and harsh), but with another curious, elegiac interlude: McDonagh sitting on the floor in the dim blue of an aquarium, next to the Hispanic thug he saved from a Katrina-flooded prison at the film’s start, who has since changed his life and been clean a whole year—the entire year McDonagh slipped into deeper and deeper drug abuse, initially because of back pain caused by a disc injury sustained in saving this man. This Herzog moment is gratifying for almost no one—not the filmgoer who’s never heard of Herzog and came to see a Nick Cage action flick, not the romantic who wants to see every film tied up with the red ribbon of resurrection and resolution—but for the director’s humanist-compatriots, it is the ideal finish: open, quiet, unresolved, without judgment, without promise, without despair.

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