“Do you think fish dream?”
— Terrence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009)
Happy Mardi Gras!
Since today is not only Fat Tuesday but also rapidly coming to a close, I think it’s time for me to share one final New Orleans film review. Admittedly, though this film takes place and was filmed in New Orleans, it doesn’t feature any Mardi Gras scenes. However, it does feature a lead performance that is perhaps as bizarre as anything that you’re likely to see in the French Quarter tonight. Of course, I’m talking about Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans.
Whenever I mention this movie to anyone, it only takes a few minutes before they get around to saying, “What was the deal with the iguanas?” Everyone remembers the two iguanas who would randomly show up throughout the movie. At one point, they were sitting in a coffee table while Lt. Terrence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage) and Sgt. Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) were watching a house across the street. When McDonagh demanded to know why the iguanas were on his coffee table, Pruit replied, “There ain’t no iguanas.” McDonagh looked down at them and grinned. This was followed by several hand-held close-ups of the iguanas, looking around inquisitively while McDonagh kept giving them the side eye.
The iguanas show up a second time, after McDonagh has tricked one gangster into killing another gangster. “Shoot him again,” McDonagh demands, “his soul’s still dancing!” Herzog pans over to show us that, indeed, the man’s soul is still dancing next to his corpse. After the soul gets shot down, an iguana wanders across the floor.
What do the iguanas represent? Some people think that they actually are meant to be hallucinations. As the result of a back injury that he received saving a prisoner during Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh has permanent back problems and this has led to him getting hooked on drugs. The perpetually high McDonagh sees and does a lot of bizarre things over the course of this movie. Perhaps the iguanas are just a part of his addiction.
Myself, I think the iguanas represent the fact that, no matter what McDonagh and anyone else in New Orleans does over the course of the film, the randomness of nature is going win out in the end. After all, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans opens with Katrina, which is perhaps the ultimate example of how helpless modern society is in the face of nature’s whims. The film takes places in neighborhoods that have yet to recover from the flooding. Every corner of the film is full of physical, emotional, and mental debris. McDonagh pops pills and snorts cocaine in an attempt to maintain some semblance of control but ultimately, the iguanas are going to show up regardless of how much control he thinks he has. Just as how Klaus Kinski, at the end of Aguirre, The Wrath Of God, couldn’t keep the monkeys off of his raft, Terrence McDonagh can’t keep the iguanas off of his coffee table.
Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans apparently started life as a reboot of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film, Bad Lieutenant. The script (which was credited to William M. Finkelstein) is full of moments that mirror scenes from Ferrara’s film. Once again, the protagonist is a corrupt police lieutenant who spends almost the entire film fucked up on drugs and whose only friend is a prostitute. Again, there’s a disturbing scene in which the lieutenant harasses a young woman in a parking lot. Again, the lieutenant has gambling debts and again, the lieutenant has to solve a horrifying crime.
While promoting his film, Herzog always said that 1) he had never seen Bad Lieutenant and 2) he didn’t even know who Abel Ferrara was. Judging from the way Herzog directs the film, which is the complete opposite of the approach that Ferrara took to similar material, I’m inclined to believe Herzog. Whereas Ferrara’s film was a grim and humorless plunge into the depths of Hell, Herzog takes an almost satirical approach to the story. The running joke throughout Herzog’s film is that the bad lieutenant gets results precisely because he is so thoroughly messed up and incompetent. The final part of Herzog’s film features so many sudden twists and turns that it’s hard not to conclude that Herzog is poking fun at how American crime films always have to wrap everything up within the final fifteen minutes, regardless of how messy or convoluted their plots may be. Whereas Ferrara’s film featured Harvey Keitel naked and bellowing in soul-searing pain, Herzog gives us Nicolas Cage grinning, laughing, and apparently having a ball.
This has got to be one of Nicolas Cage’s wildest performances. He yells. He bulges his eyes. He grins maniacally at the strangest moments. He interrogates a suspect while taking hits off a joint. Because his character has a bad back, Cage moves stiffly, carrying himself almost as if he were a living Golem. McDonagh may have his demons but, at the same time, he also seems to be having a blast every time we see him. Wisely, Herzog also allows the character some quieter moments. When the lieutenant talks about how he used to imagine there was pirate treasure buried in his back yard or when he and an ex-con sit in front of a gigantic fish tank, Cage gets a chance to show that there actually is something going on underneath all of McDonagh’s bluster. This not only one of Cage’s most over the top performances but also one of his best.
Herzog not only gets the best out of Cage but also the best out of New Orleans. He may not make New Orleans look beautiful but he still captures the atmosphere that has made New Orleans one of the most legendary cities in the world. Cage, Herzog, and New Orleans make for a great combination.