You wait years for a wonderfully weird Werner Herzog movie, and then two come along at once! Paignton film critic Tom Leins investigates…
In 2009, German director Werner Herzog became the first filmmaker in history to enter two films into competition in the same year at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.
Bad Lieutenant, Herzog’s controversial remake of Abel Ferrara’s 1992 movie of the same name was entered into the festival’s official competition, while his long-rumoured murder mystery My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? sneaked into contention as a ‘surprise film’.
When rumours of a Bad Lieutenant remake first surfaced, it seemed like some kind of bizarre filmic hoax was being perpetuated by the notoriously strange Werner Herzog. After all, how could anyone hope to replicate the gut-wrenching power of Abel Ferrara’s original drama – especially with Nicolas Cage (an actor whose critical stock was at an all-time-low thanks to a string of dodgy movies like Next and Bangkok Dangerous) in place of the hyper-intense Harvey Keitel. By replacing the angst of Ferrara’s movie with a looser, screwball approach, Herzog’s re-imagining of Bad Lieutenant (Lionsgate) is one of the loopiest, most enjoyable Hollywood crime dramas in recent years.
Re-located from the sordid environs of 90s New York to hurricane-ravaged post-Katrina New Orleans, Nicolas Cage’s titular character is promoted to the rank of Lieutenant after saving a drowning prisoner from a flooded holding cell during the hurricane.
In the process, Terrence McDonagh (Cage) damages his spine, and is forced to rely on prescription drugs to get through the day. When the meds start to lose their potency, McDonagh starts self-medicating with crack and other street drugs, shaking down dealers and stealing from evidence lockers. As his behaviour grows increasingly erratic, the only thing that looks capable of bringing him back from the brink is solving the violent drug-related murder of six Senegalese immigrants.
Stooped and leering, with a cheap haircut, Cage delivers his most gloriously odd performance in years as loopy maniac cop McDonagh. Towards the end of the movie, the cracked-out cackle that he develops is worth the price of admission alone. The surrealist tone recalls the Coen Brothers at their most madcap and a fine supporting cast, including Val Kilmer (as McDonagh’s hot-headed partner Stevie Pruitt) and Eva Mendes (McDonagh’s coke-fiend hooker girlfriend Frankie) help to flesh out Herzog’s weird world.
What begins as a distorted cop-show ends up as a warped fairy tale, and the only shame is that Bad Lieutenant wasn’t expanded into a Twin Peaks-esque mini-series, such is the weight of great material. It may not make the curmudgeonly Ferrara particularly happy – in an interview he hoped that everyone involved in the new movie ‘died in hell – but Herzog’s version of Bad Lieutenant is a bizarre treat.
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My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? (Scanbox) represents the flip-side to Bad Lieutenant’s mainstream-trampling narrative charge. Inspired by the true story of Mark Yavorsky, a mentally unbalanced San Diego resident who murdered his own mother with an antique sabre in 1979, My Son had been mired in ‘development hell’ since it was originally conceived as a movie project in 1995. A chance encounter between Herzog and fellow maverick director David Lynch resulted in the oddball pairing bemoaning the state of modern filmmaking. Apparently keen to promote a ‘return to essential filmmaking’, Lynch asked Herzog if he had anything in mind, and My Son was finally born.
Bankrolled by Lynch’s AbsuRda production company, Herzog has seemingly repaid his debt to the Blue Velvet director by creating a movie that is dangerously in thrall to his friend’s hallucinatory style of filmmaking. Yavorsky’s murderous protagonist has been renamed Brad McCullum, and the movie opens with two detectives – played by Willem Dafoe and Michael Pena – en route to a hostage situation, in which sword-wielding McCullum (played by Michael Shannon) has two unidentified captives trapped inside his house. After a promising start, the movie descends into nonsense, as the threadbare plot gives way to a series of increasingly eccentric ‘non sequiturs’ that seek to explore McCullum’s fragile mental state.
With a strong cast (numbering Dafoe, Chloe Sevigny and Brad Dourif) spouting deceptively sinister Lynch-style dialogue, My Son quickly lulls you into a permanently-disconcerted state of mind, but the creeping sense of unease isn’t quite enough to distract you from the half-baked narrative. As extended exercises in cinematic hero worship go, My Son is undeniably peculiar stuff. A meeting of minds between David Lynch and Werner Herzog was always going to be an unconventional affair, but considering its 15-year genesis, My Son feels like it is being made up as it goes along. An intriguing experiment, just not a terribly enjoyable film. Approach with caution.