I love Werner Herzog. His movies are never easy. The great majority of them are about a lone man living at extremes in his own private world with its own special laws. The man seems insane to the outside world - and often to us as the audience - but perhaps he is the only sane man. Perhaps his mad quest is the only true and right thing. And of course, lurking at the edge of each of his films (and sometimes even invading them personally) is Herzog himself, also a madman on a mad quest.
Herzog remade Bad Lieutenant without having seen the original film, and without even knowing, at first, that there was an original film. His version is another story of a man prowling restlessly at the edge of things, this time a cop in post-Katrina New Orleans named Terence McDonagh, and played by Nicolas Cage. The setting and time period have clearly not been chosen at random. The film is very much about the shame and violence and horror and heroism that we saw in the wake of that disaster. In fact, all of those conflicting things are embodied in the character of McDonagh. He is a living contradiction, a man constantly at odds with himself, and that is immediately made clear to us in the very first scene. McDonagh and his partner Stevie Pruit (Val Kilmer) have come back to the police station shortly after the hurricane to clean out a fellow officer's locker. McDonagh rummages violently through this other man's possessions, guessing correctly that they will include naughty pictures of the man's wife, which he pockets. Also among the items is an arrest report. McDonagh realizes the arrested man might still be in the jail cells below, and indeed when they go down there they find him - and he is about to drown. The flood waters, infested with snakes, are rising and he is trapped in a cell. He pleads to be let out, but McDonagh and Pruit laugh and jeer at him, and begin to wager over how long they think he will survive. In the midst of this argument, McDonagh stops, removes his shoes and coat, and, over Pruit's protestations (who points out that the fire department or someone else can save the prisoner), he leaps into the water.
Shortly afterward we learn that McDonagh succeeded in saving the man, and thus earned himself a promotion to Lieutenant. But he also injured his back to such an extent that he will now experience chronic back pain for the rest of his life. He is prescribed Vicodin, but it's not enough, so he starts to take stronger stuff: pot, cocaine, heroin. He becomes a desperate junkie, lurching through the rest of the movie pale and ill and laughing at things no one else finds funny, with one shoulder hunched up and a burning need in his gut for more, more, more drugs, no matter what the cost. He lies, he tortures, he steals, he engages in the seediest and most despicable villainy to get more drugs. Sometimes it seems his desire for the next hit is the only thing that drives his actions, and even when he seems to be trying to solve a crime, it's all just a show he's putting on so he can get closer to the drugs. When a drug dealer asks him if he cares anymore about the murder case that's at the center of the film's plot, he says, "Look at you. Look at me. I never did." And at that point in the film, it's hard not to believe him.
But the next thing you know, he's jumping into that water again.
(This next bit could be considered a spoiler, so move on if you don't want to know about the ending of the film.) The film takes a twist near the end that's rather like the twist near the end of Taxi Driver. Up until that point, the movie has been a darkly comedic spiral into destruction and chaos, with McDonagh getting himself into more and more trouble with more and more people as he goes on, building up an array of enemies that is sure to overwhelm him at any moment. Then all at once events take a 180 degree turn and shoot up toward an almost impossibly happy ending. I interpreted this at first as most people do the end of Taxi Driver - it must be the wishful dream McDonagh is having as he ODs on uncut heroin. But then a title card informs us the film has jumped a year into the future, and we discover that McDonagh's storybook life isn't as perfect as it seemed - he's still a desperate junkie. But when it seems he's once again at the tip of a precipice and ready to fall into oblivion, the man he saved at the beginning of the film shows up miraculously to return the favor. The movie ends with a long shot of them sitting together in an aquarium - now, once again, together beneath the water. And McDonagh laughs.
It's a very strange film, with funny moments, puzzling moments, and deeply uncomfortable moments. It's a portrait of a man who, despite his best efforts, fails to destroy himself. It's powerful and meaningful and slightly unhinged. It's a Werner Herzog film.
(UPDATE: Something really odd I forgot to mention - multiple times during the movie, the microphones that the crew is using to pick up the audio during the shoot dip down into the camera frame so you can see them floating above the actors. This is something you usually only see in really bad movies where the crew is clumsy and nobody cares enough to look for such mistakes, or to fix them if and when they're found. But this is not a really bad movie, and the filmmakers are not amateurs, so I'm really at a loss to understand how this happened. It's marginally possible that I saw an early print and the mikes will somehow be taken out later on, but I don't think so; the prints I see at early screenings are pretty much always the final ones, and anyway I don't know how you'd take the mikes out except by computer-generating them out, or using a totally different take where the mike didn't drop into the shot. The most likely option, and yet at the same time, the most unlikely, is that Herzog wanted the audience to see the microphones for some reason. I don't know why this would be, as it really takes you out of the movie, but maybe he was going for some kind of postmodern comment on the constructed nature of film. Then again, maybe the crew just screwed up a bunch of times and nobody noticed until it was too late.)