In which Nicolas Cage has a few spats with sanity (spoiler notice)
At the end of The Bad Lieutenant, Werner Herzog eats his cake and has it.
Nicolas Cage’s hard-bitten cop Terence McDonagh has been cursed and redeemed at the same time. He continues to coerce girls on a night out into sex (leveraging his authority), beats up people, and entertains a wild drug and gambling addiction – stealing the narcotics from the evidence locker. In the course of an investigation, he brutally interrogates an elderly lady. We are shown he does all these things to catch the bad guys. He does it “’cause he likes to get high,” explains his equally corrupt colleague. Yet we also see Terence in a blossoming relationship with a beautiful ex-prostitute, the bonds with his family restored and a promotion to captain landing in his lap.
These endings form an impenetrable contrast. It’s like watching two different conclusions to two different movies. Things have changed and are the same. Terence has found happiness but continues to be miserable. Genius move or cop-out? Is Herzog unwilling to give us easy answers or is he just messing with us?
What stands is how entertaining The Bad Lieutenant is. I expected a brooding portrait of a corrupt officer; instead there are break dancing hallucinations, trademark flipped out Cage moments and no fucking iguanas on the coffee table. I guess I shouldn’t have underestimated Cage’s ability to liven up any movie, and neither Herzog’s to steer the film into darkly comedic waters. The depravity on display is nothing if not captivating and post-Katrina New Orleans a snake-ridden cesspool of debauchery you can’t keep your eyes off of.
The film is a real treat. But what of the answer to the conflicting endings? In the spirit of Herzog’s direction, I’m leaving that open to your own interpretation. Enjoy your imaginary reptiles.