There are a handful of rare occasions in which a director and an actor get together to discuss a film, and everything matches. Their vision, their personality, their work ethic, their style, their courage and confidence. When this relationship clicks, the results most often transcend the words on the page. Think about Darren Aronofsky directing Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, Tim Burton collaborating with Johnny Depp in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, and, of course, Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood. With Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, we can add another duo to the list: Werner Herzog and Nicolas Cage.
What most of these films have in common is that story and plot seem to be secondary to everything else. Sure, Cage plays a cop named Terence McDonagh looking for the man who killed five illegal Senegalese immigrants, but this information isn't really all that important. It simply provides a brief outline for Herzog, allowing him to put his signature on the film's brooding atmosphere. A dark, depressed, broken-down, post-Katrina New Orleans in which bookies, drug dealers, and hookers seem to outnumber the community lemonade stands about 100 to one. There is nothing cheery about this environment, and the gloominess is only emphasized more by the consistently cloudy skies.
After McDonagh injures his back during an impulsive act of heroism -- much to the dismay of his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) -- he not only becomes addicted to the prescription pain medication, but he also begins a far worse habit of smoking and snorting anything that comes into his sight. His one salvation seems to be Frankie Donnenfeld (Eva Mendes). She's a hooker, and even though most of their bonding moments occur over the smoke of a pipe, it's obvious that the two share a deep connection.
Cage portrays McDonagh as a ticking time bomb. He's a restless man on the verge of insanity; a perfect role for the actor. McDonagh is a man who doesn't sleep, not because he has insomnia or some other sleeping disorder, but because he just has too much on his plate. When he's not working on the case, he's out doing drugs. When he's not doing drugs, he's out looking for drugs, usually by theft or assault. When he's not with Frankie, he's out making bets with money he doesn't have.
This guy's life is a pure disaster, and it's a pleasure to see Cage embody the role. Herzog's controversial and fearless direction is a perfect match for Cage, and it results in the actor's best performance in years. To put it simply, these are the types of roles that Nicolas Cage was born to play. He carries this film on his hunched shoulders from start to finish, and in a perfect world, he would have an Oscar nomination to add to his resume.
However, despite all of this praise for the actor and the director, it is worth noting how off-putting this film can be at times. Cage and Herzog are a relentless team and there are many scenes that caused people to walk out of the theater. "This wasn't the right call for us," I heard one audience member say. If you're going to see this film -- which you should -- let me just tell you to go in with a relaxed attitude. This isn't a film that needs to be analyzed scene by scene, shot by shot, but just experienced as a whole. If you walk out of the theater analyzing the quirky plot twists and outlandish drug use, I think you are looking at this film the wrong way. Now I'm not saying that this is a stupid film. I'm just saying that if you sit back and let Cage do his thing, you will have one hell of a time.
Sunday, November 29, 2009