Bad Lieutenant, a reflection

New Orleans, Louisiana: post-Katrina.

Lieutenant Terence McDonagh, played by Nicholas Cage, walks in to a house already occupied by policemen and sheet covered bodies on the ground. He passes his colleague, Stevie Pruit, played by Val Kilmer, who updates him on the situation. Five murders, execution style. Pruit says don’t look. Terence lifts up the sheet to glance at the bodies and so do we.

But wait right there. Don’t look?

Dead bodies can’t be much of a surprise for these hardened police officers anymore. The bodies didn’t even look that shocking. How bad would a body need to look to affect someone like Lieutenant McDonagh. Whatever the shocking scene was meant to look like didn’t work. He seemed unphased and so were we, the audience, who consume mutilated bodies as our daily news consumption. A dead body was on the front page of the Guardian last Friday and that was real life.

The moment when Val Kilmer said “don’t look” is the moment I stopped worrying about the story and sat back and enjoyed the performance.

I’m talking about Nicholas Cage of course who took over every inch of interest I had available. He swayed, he swaggered, he mostly limped and carried his tall lanky frame, in its cheap police officer suit, across the screen in order to take more drugs.

I read an interview of his, in the Guardian last week, which mentioned how he learnt about suitable reactions to different drugs. The slower lethargic heroin induced motions as compared to the frenetic actions that accompany the paranoid illusions of the crack cocaine and other amphetamine consumption. I am happy to accept that his version was about right.

The movie was pleasant and the laughter in the cinema indicated that others also found it quite fun. There was a brilliant scene where a dead alligator in the middle of the road waves goodbye to her offspring as he/she sheds a tear and walks away.

Peter Zeitlinger, nominated for Best Cinematography at the Independent Spirit Awards, was head of photography and did pretty well in making us feel that we were the woozy ones. There were a couple of off-moments when the scene would slowly elevate until we were watching the goings on underneath us. The contrast may have been a bit too sharp as the next moment we are Nicholas Cage again and everything is a little too close up and overcrowded. Maybe that’s why the best Cinematographer prize was won by Roger Deakins for A Serious Man.

The film looked good though and I don’t mean nice. There are scenes of New Orleans that look incredibly grim, but are translated to impressive, under Zeitlinger’s touch. The Nicholas Cage show took over however and it wouldn’t have been the same without his touch of surrealism. Were we meant to be the iguanas that only Cage could see? The green, still reptiles, with the glint of a rainbow sparkling off their eyes. His casual glances down towards them, towards us, as he and fellow police officers staked out the house opposite. It still makes me smile.

The movie was pleasant. It left me with a happy feeling of having been to see something quite nice but I would be amazed if that’s what Werner Herzog intended. Werner, who was shot by an insignificant bullet during an interview with Mark Kermode and who was happy to keep going, could not have meant to make a pleasant movie.

If I was so tempted, and I’m not because I think the storyline was weak, I could give better examples of how it all fits together. The balance of good for bad. The life sacrificed today accompanies the one which gets saved tomorrow. The solitary red-finned fish swimming in a glass of water is our remnant of the massacre of the family of five. The balance is found later on but Nicholas Cage is still struggling to get through it all. I’m not sure what it’s all about. It might be about maintaining that thin blue line which is a little more jagged in some places. At times it was a little too Hollywood to feel real but it was still pretty good and had a great soundtrack.

Bad Lieutenant is showing at the Watershed in Bristol until 03 June.

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