by NIR SHALEV
Crazy auteur and part-time genius filmmaker Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) got his kicks during the 1970s directing films that starred an even crazier man, Klaus Kinsky. He and Kinsky made great films together in which Kinsky’s character was usually crazy. The director and actor were also good friends. Now Herzog has made friends with Nicolas Cage and it’s one of the best film-related happenings of the decade.
Cage plays Terence McDonagh, a post-Katrina New Orleans police officer who damages his back while rescuing a convicted prisoner from drowning. As he is promoted to Lieutenant, he suffers from chronic back pains and takes a lot of prescription and illegal drugs to combat the pain. He buys and steals cocaine and heroin from almost every person that he meets, and also from police evidence lockers. He rapes women in back alleys and forces their dates to watch and he grows more crooked by the hour because his addiction and pain grow stronger all the time. He’s also a chronic gambler who loses much more than he wins and his girlfriend (Eva Mendez) is a hooker. Bad enough? Well, it get darker and much better.
The plot centers on the murder of five Senegalese, including some children. McDonagh leads the investigation, along with short lived yet strong support from characters played by Val Kilmer and Shawn Hatosy.
We follow McDonagh through the decaying city of New Orleans and Herzog never uses lights, he simply points the camera and shoots. Some shots are even shot handheld to add grit. The city’s decay mirrors McDonagh’s inner being and we see him go from bad to worse. So bad that at one point McDonagh hallucinates a couple of iguanas and Herzog, the crazy cat that he is, showcases the remainder of the scene through the perspective of the hallucinated iguanas. And sometimes, from the corner of the screen we see Cage staring at the iguanas, forming a slight smile.
Without labeling this film as a comedy, it sure has a great sense of humor. When McDonagh stands in the middle of a shootout that involves black and Italian gangsters, he then commands one of the black gangsters to shoot the leader of the Italians again. When asked why he replies, “Shoot him again because his soul is still dancing.” Then Herzog pans the camera over to the corpses and we see the soul of the Italian gang leader break-dancing to Cajun music. We cut back and forth from the break-dancer to a smiling and convincing Cage and we laugh with the film’s audacity because Herzog had masterfully placed us in the middle of a metaphorically drowned city and forced us to bear witness to McDonagh’s shenanigans. McDonagh is our eyes and ears to the corruption of this once great city and he’s the worst person in the world to guide tourists.
TBL:POCNO is shot with frankness because Herzog supports the guerilla style of filmmaking and is entirely fearless. Having hired Cage for the role of McDonagh was a brilliant step in the right direction because Vampire’s Kiss (1988), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), and Bringing out the Dead (1999) wouldn’t work without a fearless actor like him. Say what you will about the man but when he goes over the top in a performance that requires it and in a film with a good script (i.e. Face/Off) fireworks can be seen and heard and his performance in this film is his opus; a masterstroke on behalf of both the star and the director.
Watching this film reminded me of Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979) in the way that the protagonist is labeled as the “bad guy.” Cage as McDonagh is as crooked and doped up as it gets but he gets the job done in spades; likewise Kinsky as Count Dracula is hypnotic as the failed lover and vampire. Concocting antagonists we’re required to side with is not an easy job and screenwriter William M. Finkelstein had outdone himself with McDonagh.
Much will be said about this is being a typical Herzog film and in all honesty it is. It’s not an instant classic or a masterpiece, but a Herzog film nevertheless and that, automatically is a pretty good thing. Having recently directed Rescue Dawn and Encounters at the End of the World, it’s clear that contemporary Herzog is still a great Herzog.
As much of a cliche as this is, words cannot describe how much I enjoyed this film. It’s one of the best movies I have seen this year, Cage’s performance is one of the finest of the year and Herzog is finally back on the map (not that he’d ever left). I’m hearing that this film is receiving a lot of flack and that some claim it to be “easily, the worst movie of the year or ever.” In its defense, I say, “Walk into it knowing that Cage knows what he’s doing, that Herzog knows that he’s doing, and that during the parts where you find yourself laughing, you were supposed to.” This is virtuoso filmmaking and a great art house job.