This post contains spoilers, for a four-year-old film that has less of a plot than it has a Cage. Be warned.
Nicolas Cage is one of Hollywood’s true enigmas. Anyone with a public image and a couple million to spare can be adorably quirky. Dozens of actors make their living by projecting an image of a loveable weirdo, odd enough to coo over, but not odd enough to reject. Cage, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to be interested in what the public thinks of him, what with the castles, Peruvian crystal skulls, and hundred-thousand-dollar octopi that he buys with reckless abandon. The standard response to this, is that he was a good actor once, now sadly degenerated into the sort of person who stars in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Season of the Witch. People will generally point to some point in his early career as a peak, and then look at National Treaure and tut softly. The thing about Cage, though, is that there’s no discernible place in his career that can be quantified as either the peak or the nadir. He just does, and whether the movie he’s in is good and whether he’s good in it, seems unpredictable and totally divorced from context.
Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans, despite looking like it needs a second colon in its title, is an amazing film. It’s got a lot of interesting commentary on its setting, post-Katrina New Orleans, but, personally I don’t feel qualified to analyse that. Instead, I’m going to focus on Nicolas Cage in one of the best roles of his career, and certainly his most recent great one. His character, Lt. Terence McDonagh is one of the best arguments for Cage still being relevant in modern film, as he’s every insane stereotype that Cage has accumulated over thirtyish years, and he works, and not just as a curiosity.
McDonagh is first characterised by excess, and that remains constant throughout the film. In his first appearance, he tries to interest his partner (Val Kilmer) in a thousand-dollar bet on a drowning prisoner’s life. His character is unsympathetically developed enough by this point that when he jumps into a flooded holding cell to rescue the prisoner while simultaneously complaining about ruining his fifty-dollar underwear, it seems out of character. But he does jump, which gives him a debilitating back injury that informs his character throughout the film.
The character in question is a corrupt, crack-smoking, police officer with a prostitute girlfriend and a gambling addiction who nevertheless remains sympathetic throughout the film. Most of his habits Most of the film portrays his attempts at self-destruction whilst simultaneously attempting to solve a high-profile murder.
A quintuple murder case is technically the central plot of Bad Lieutenant, but it’s much better understood as a character study, which is established in the funeral of the murdered family. McDonagh attends, looking distinctly uncomfortable with the African funerary rights, and is begged by a hysterical family member for help. This scene shows the character as pre-occupied with something other than his own self-destruction. He says little to the woman who’s crying at him, but the fact that he showed up at the funeral and Cage’s facial expressions convey that he cares very deeply about justice for the murders, and he pursues the case with borderline insane fervor.
Likewise, when his partner pulls in several persons of interest, Cage berates him for intimidation in the interrogation room and bad procedure. He actually cares about the outcome of the investigation enough to treat a prisoner fairly well in the context of a police force with a healthy disdain for basic human rights.
Generally when this movie gets mentioned in any sort of critical sense, it’s to point out the utter off-the-wall insanity of Cage’s performance. He hallucinates iguanas! He giggles hysterically while smoking crack with drug dealers! He threatens a resident of a retirement home by cutting of her oxygen! And it’s true that these sequences, which are plentiful as the ones that paint McDonagh as depressed and self-destructive, are immensely entertaining. But they serve a second purpose, which is to obfuscate his intentions and motivation. When McDonagh shouts at a corpse “Shoot him again. His soul’s still dancing.”, the viewer’s response is to assume it’s just Nic Cage acting crazy. Both the character’s and the actor’s insanity are covers for the fact that Cage is playing a deeply conflicted man.
As the plot advances, it becomes apparent that the walls are closing in on Terence McDonagh. He pisses of the wrong people, both legally and otherwise, he owes his bookie thousands, and the case goes nowhere. Seemingly out of desperation, he climbs into bed with the same drug lord who he’s trying to imprison. As it turns out, this in an elaborate and very illegal frame-up; the drug lord (played by Xzibit, of all people) takes a hit from McDonagh’s “lucky crack pipe,” and the false DNA evidence on the pipe is planted at the scene of the murder. What makes this interesting is how well the movie convinces you that this is simply McDonagh snapping. Cage plays the descent into villainy totally straight, giving no indication that McDonagh is anything more than unhinged and desperate. He gives a brilliant performance in a scene where he does crack with, and subsequently uses his new friends to massacre a rival gang to which he owes money. Throughout, he’s laughing mad, screaming about football players turning into elks, but it’s both an indicator of his encroaching insanity and his dedication to the case that he’d produce such a convincing smokescreen.
By the film’s final, devastating scene, it’s apparent that despite succeeding in every area of his life, McDonagh hasn’t changed at all. He has everything he wants in life, but he’s fundamentally unhappy. Whether it’s by his back injury or the systematic self-destruction that characterises his life, McDonagh is permanently scarred and can’t fix any aspect of his life, even if it’s done for him. He may have all his problems solved, a successful career and a happy family life, but there’s no escape. Nevertheless, the final line of the film denotes that he’s devoid of both hope and regret. When he tells the prisoner he saved “I still hate you for ruining my underpants,” he’s not blaming him for ruining his life. He’s telling him that the only thing he regrets that day is the loss of his fifty-dollar underwear, not the rescue. Even in the face of the cause of his emotional and physical disabilities, he retains a sense of justice that defines his character throughout the film. Cage conveys all this in a single, wearily delivered line, as if he’s accepted the deeply flawed human that he is and the lack of meaning in his life.
Bad Lieutenant is a perfect example of how Nicolas Cage works as an actor. Given a role with a sufficient degree of insanity, he pushes his character’s unhinged behaviour such that it jumps back and forth between hilarious and disturbing with reckless abandon. Even so, there’s a genuine human being in his performance, buried beneath addiction and excess, who is vulnerable despite being deeply flawed.