Bad Lieutenant: Pain as Metaphor

Regardles of original director Abel Ferrara’s apparent wish to see the people behind this picture die and burn in hell, I thought this was Werner Herzog and Nic Cage’s best effort in a while. Cage is able to express a number of different emotions and personas as convincingly as I’ve seen this year. (Jeff Bridges also did it empathically in Crazy Heart, but Cage’s performance seems more important.) With his hunched back, walking with stiff, short steps he embodies a whole city’s (if not to say country’s) feeling of despair and disillusion.

Cage’s character, Terrence McDonagh, is a highly flawed, corrupt cop who at one point decides to jump into a flooding prison cell from one story up to save a drowning prisoner. The result is irrepearable back damage and a permanent condition of severe back pain. These chronic back pains spiral McDonagh further and further down into a world of narcotics and prescription drugs.

Setting the plot in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is a masterstroke by Herzog. If there is ever a place to illustrate the brimming injustice of the ever-growing inequality in the U.S. (and the world), this is it. (Consider the plans to privatize and gentrify the area in the wake of the catastrophè.)

I find it hard not to see Cage’s tortured cop as a metaphor. A metaphor for how poverty and downward social mobility as the result of disease, injury and disaster strikes coincidentally, dragging shame and humiliation along in its footsteps.

Cage’s good deed does not go unpunished. His injury perfectly illustrates how New Orleans’ poor and predominately black population was brought to its knees. The same way desperate people all over the world see the windows, doors, and borders of opportunity close all around them by a brutal, overwhelming, and merciless force, as poverty sweeps up its random victims.


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3 Responses to “Bad Lieutenant: Pain as Metaphor”

  1. Randy Aitken Says:

    2 12 2011
    I haven’t seen the remake. I loved the original and I didn’t realize that Herzog had directed the latest version. Mendes and Cage together? I gotta’ see this given what you wrote. After I see it I’ll post a comment. Thanks for your kind word about my De Palma blog. Take care – Randy

  2. rado Says:

    good observation. it’s also a cracking contemporary noir – a fact often ignored.

  3. Christian Grevstad Says:

    Sorry for not getting back to you guys sooner – I’ve been so busy trying to start up my own film projects. But thanks for the comments.
    Rado: Thanks. You’re right, of course.
    Randy: Did you ever get to see the remake?

    I recently saw his latest, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done – which frankly, I thought was an astonishing mess. Herzog’s very prolific, obviously.

    I thought Grizzly Man was an incredibly overrated movie – but I’ve heard good things about Rescue Dawn, so I think I’ll give that a chance when I come across it.

    I read that Herzog doesn’t use storyboards – unfortunately I think it shows.

    But I love his tenaciousness and drive – that’s also a mark of many good artists, and definitely something to be admired.

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