An ‘n’ can often make a big difference. If you chuck an ‘n’ onto a beaver dam, you land yourself inadvertently with a PG-13 rating for your woodland wildlife documentary. There are more examples… obviously. The one we are concerned with here is the ‘n’ that separates “Hi” McDunnough from Raising Arizona and Terrence McDonagh from… admittedly there is more than an ‘n’ that is changed here, but you must admit that the ‘n’ is the crux of the matter.
Basically, these are two pretty different films with two pretty differently named protagonists. In this film Cage is acting at the other end of the justice system, not a criminal but a cop, albeit one soured and soused by back pain and illegal medication to keep said back pain in check. While in Raising Arizona Cage was a slouchy pipe-cleaner cat, here he is as tense as a man made of beef jerky on a bad day. A hitherto unseen vein on Cage’s temple – the shape of a divining rod – throbs, not when Cage is near a body of water, but all the time he is on screen. He acts so hard he is in danger of damaging himself and others. When he breaks face into a devil-may-care smile, it’s a bit of a shock and this smile is used twice at epiphanic moments in the film. The one that ends the film is a shot directly out of Wes Anderson (symmetrical shot of two people looking in the direction of the camera) as a stingray glides serenely past the back of his head, Cage sits back against the glass wall of an aquarium tank. It is an image of calm that sits curiously at the end of a noisy, silly, disjunctive film.
In the last review we saw that Cage under the direction of an aueteurist directorial team gave, at an early point in his career, a performance that, while enjoyable, could not be separated from the texture of the film. He played a character that belonged to the Coens, not to himself. Herzog is a director similarly identifiable by last name alone, but he is also a director famed for giving mad, expressive freedom to his lead actors, namely the late Klaus Kinski. Often the skill of Herzog’s direction lies in poking his actors, like tormented pets, into a suitable frenzy and then stepping back and turning on the camera. In Bad Lieuenant Herzog has elicited an intense and often startling performance from Cage, allowing him to indulge Cageisms such as laughing whenever he hears of a drug dealer named ‘G’ and a moment where a door swings closed to show Cage, previously hidden, now revealed shaving menacingly as a sort of domestic-routine-based threat.
I mentioned Herzog prodding his actors into frenzy like maltreated pets, since Herzog has a “curious” relationship with animals… they are often favoured by his camera, even while they undergo his ”prodding”. Unlike in Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972) no monkeys are hurled, but Cage does give an iguana a nasty prod, a fish is kept in an obviously undersized glass and an alligator hopefully doesn’t have its real intestines spilled upon the tarmac. Really, please don’t let those intestines have been real. The animal sequences are often long and inscrutable, playing an unspecified part in McDonagh’s drug induced delusions and mesmerizing in their insistence and length. Herzog often uses animals to signify the chaotic, amoral world of nature that humans occupy, despite their mini-bars and digital watches. Cage is certainly animalistic here, his laughs are like no laughs I have ever heard before! They are manic, yowling things like a broken clown might make or a fox screaming in the night.
Yet despite the madness, I found the performance, which other critics have described as “hammy”, very convincing. Cage, as ever and I love him for it, attacks the role with an earnest sincerity, rather than with ironic distance. Roger Ebert wonderfully encapsulated this tendency of Cage, thus:
“He always seems so earnest. However improbable his character, he never winks at the audience. He is committed to the character with every atom and plays him as if he were him.”
This committment shows itself in Cage’s mighty hump which he cultivates over the course of the film. It starts manifested in a slight hobble and a raised shoulder, but ends with an ‘Igor’ style slant worthy of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). I do not think Cage needed padding or a cardboard back to achieve this, either.
It is this commitment which means that Cage’s performance here can be at once both weighty and fleet-footed. It is a fun performance in an often daft film, but it never felt like self-parody to me, as others have asserted. At one point, when faced with a dangerous run-in with the mafia, a member of the gang Cage has fallen in with, shoots down the Don. “Shoot him again” Cage cries, “his soul’s still dancing!” Sure enough, the soul break-dances free and agile next to the leaden body. In his role as Terrence McDonagh Cage plays a medicated man, carrying with him the burden of the flesh, but with a lightness of touch, which lifts the film into a surprisingly playful arena.