July 22, 2011 -- This movie about a self-destructive, drug-addicted detective has a familiar theme, which has been explored many times in movies and TV series, but this film has a different twist to it. For one thing, it looks and sounds surreal, with its odd lighting, jittery “reptile cam” shots, fantasy sequences and odd soundtrack (music by Mark Isham). For another thing, it alters direction and mood abruptly at times. For another thing, it is directed by Werner Herzog (“Aguirre: The Wrath of God”) so you know this isn't going to be a typical cop drama, and it is definitely not.
At first, it looks like a typical cop drama with second-generation New Orleans cop Terence McDonagh (Nicholas Cage of “Kick Ass”) heading in a steep downward spiral. After hurting his back rescuing a prisoner during the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina, McDonagh first gets hooked on pain killers, then on cocaine and heroin. He is also addicted to gambling, losing thousands of dollars on college football games. He comes by it naturally since his father was an alcoholic. McDonagh is circling the drain. He is out of control, stealing drugs from police evidence lockers, from crime scenes and, using illegal search and seizure techniques, from people on the street. His gambling losses are mounting. In one scene, he steals drugs from a couple, then has sex with the woman, forcing her boyfriend to watch. In another scene, he blackmails a college football player into throwing a football game so he can recoup his gambling losses. He also partners with a drug dealer, feeding him confidential police information for money and drugs.
You know where this is going, but wait, you don't. The whole plot spins on a dime and we end up with a kind of Hollywood Ending, sort of, but not really. Like I said, the movie is surrealistic. You think you have it figured out, and suddenly the plot wheels around and spins off in another direction. At the heart of the story is a horrific murder case, which includes the execution-style slayings of women and children. McDonagh solves the case his own way. He doesn't play by the rules, not even close, but he gets the job done. He's not a hero. He's not even an anti-hero. He is something else. Nicholas Cage is very adept and experienced at playing this kind of crazed, addicted character who is somehow still able to cling to a key part of his humanity.
Most filmmakers could not get away with this type of ending, but Herzog is considered an auteur by many critics. I don't believe in the auteur theory, that a director is like a novelist or painter, because film making, unlike those artistic endeavors, is a collaborative art, not an individual one. I'll give this movie a passing grade for another reason: It fashions a fascinating, unique character. McDonagh operates in a totally corrupt universe. As bad as he is, there are worse people out there.
McDonagh's out-of-control self-destructive impulses lead in one direction, down. Yet somehow he not only doesn't go down the drain. He actually rises up. This part of the film is pure fantasy. His body, which should have been ravaged by drugs, looks the same. Similarly, there seem to be no real consequences for his other actions. He just keeps swimming against the raging current of evil and corruption and somehow is not swept downstream. All the while, he is haunted by a hand-written poem, wondering if fish dream (there's the rub, as Hamlet noted). The iguanas sing to him, dead men break dance for him, alligators watch him as he swims by, but they never bite. If McDonagh had simply continued his downward spiral, the film would have been more realistic, but predictable and unentertaining. As it is, I found it oddly captivating. This is one weird movie. It rates a B.
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