Werner Herzog is not a great director. He doesn’t care about making things look the way he wants them to look. He wants the world to look the way it is, even if it looks cheap, or as though no-one prepared it for the camera. He’s drawn to purity. He was raised in the hills. For Herzog, people are fascinating when they behave like animals, when the natural environment ravishes niceties. He wants to film people when their survival is in question. Anything that’s not human knows only life and death. Pure existence – that’s what Herzog is after. His re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant is, he says, about “the bliss of evil”. Animal-like, the lead cop preys on crime.
In post-Katrina New Orleans, a coke-snorting, crack-smoking lunatic (Nicolas Cage) runs around making havoc. He’s a policeman. Ostensibly he’s hunting a killer. At night he growls at civilians. He seems to function on a diet of splenetic rage and illicit substances. His girlfriend is a drug-addled hooker. His father drinks the way a mudslide washes over a town. All the world’s dirt seems caked to the cop’s life. He should be desperate for redemption. But it’s as though –like a fish that swims in darkness – he has adjusted to the filth. If there were no emergencies, he’d be a lowly drug addict. His profession, like a fish’s appetite, adapts him to thrive.
Animals are ubiquitous in Bad Lieutenant. For a lot of viewers, they’re going to get in the way. The movie spends far more time watching wildlife than filming car chases. In fact, whenever an animal is on-screen, the movie even loses interest in Nicolas Cage. (For the director, you sense, Cage is just another twitchy reptile eyeing up his next meal). Whatever plot is here is ancillary. Herzog wants, as always, to see the jungle in our society. It isn’t that the animals are here by accident, it’s more like the humans are being reminded who – and what – they are. Crime is an ecosystem; inter-species rivalry isn’t a sign of distress, it’s a sign of balance.
Actors share a lot in common with wild animals. They’re best when they’re untamed. The domesticated actor sits in his enclosure most of the time, occasionally let out to be photographed by well-wishers…any spontaneity long dead. Nicolas Cage is a good example of a Hollywood beast. In his youth, he ate live cockroaches. Of late, he’s been as wild as a napkin. In Bad Lieutenant though (perhaps goaded by Herzog, or exposure to New Orleans), Cage seems like the Cage of old. He frightens senior citizens. He has sex in the middle of the street. There’s a joy to his bad behaviour, like a zoo animal biting his keeper. He’s wild for the rest of us. It’s a shameless performance. Even his gun seems to swell with pride. With his final laugh – the last sound in the film – it’s like life has struck him, fresh.
The women in the movie aren’t allowed to be as naughty as Cage. Eva Mendes could no doubt drink him under the table, but she isn’t allowed to here. Mendes, who looks like one of Georgia O’Keeffe’s orchids, appears to be the most carnal woman alive. But of course, she’s the one who sees the error of her ways. It almost seems to be another of Herzog’s jokes to have her not have sex, and still end the movie pregnant. As usual in cop movies, women don’t rate a mention unless they’re asking men for help. Still, just by casting Mendes, Herzog chooses a lioness. She may not get to do much, but she still looks like she could devour the meek, and the skinny.
Bad Lieutenant was directed by a lizard, with eyes looking sideways, not in front. When Nicolas Cage confesses he doesn’t care about the murders he’s investigating, he might as well be speaking for Werner Herzog. This is a study of animals in their natural environment – one recently, and not coincidentally, ravaged by a tropical storm. The director is not in the slightest interested in whodunit. Because it’s the world that brought us murder. Ruthlessness is natural law. Herzog’s phrase, “the bliss of evil” is about not thinking. All the madness that’s in the movie is food for Cage. He eats and he eats and goes on eating. Goodness would require thought.