If there weren’t already a colon in the title of the film, a good addition to the title of this post would’ve been something like, “Primal Regression.” Werner Herzog’s film is concerned with first things, and also with returns, but not necessarily in that order. The first shots of the film include a snake slithering through the flooded prison cell of immediately post-Katrina New Orleans. A trapped inmate proceeds to tempt (as it were) pre-promotion Sergeant Terrence McDonagh to free him from his cell before he drowns. The sergeant initially resists temptation, especially as his partner encourages him to lay down money as to how soon the water will rise and kill the trapped man. After flirting with his more sinister tendencies, McDonagh gives in, jumping down into the water to unlock the door. When he lands he irreversibly injures himself, causing chronic pain and a suggestive limp for the rest of the film. So we have a snake, temptation, and a “fall” (literal and figurative), all in the film’s first scene.
What follows in the film problematizes the world and all those who dwell in it. This is New Orleans after the hurricane, after all. So we’re starting out in a version of Hell much more than a version of Eden. The fact that McDonagh’s initial dilemma is actually a temptation to do good and not evil corresponds to the backwardness of this new world, a world defined by destruction rather than creation. McDonagh was never good in the first place, as evidenced by the film’s first few minutes of him wandering around the dilapidated police station and reviewing items of a most personal nature belonging to another man. He pockets the violated marital photos and plans to use them for his own gain. What problematizes the otherwise insidious nature of McDonagh at the outset is his deliberately moral gesture of saving the inmate’s life. Everything is a little backwards in this world, and Herzog does justice to real-life complexity by avoiding simple good-cop-bad-cop distinctions. McDonagh isn’t one or the other, and he isn’t in-between; he sways violently and unpredictably between the two poles.
Consistent appearances by animals reflect the primal preoccupations of the film. These appearances are sometimes real but oftentimes surreal. They’re either projections of McDonagh’s drug-addled mind or representative injections of it by his environment. In one scene he hallucinates a couple of iguanas, to the minor consternation of his comrades as they prepare for a raid. In another, he appears at the scene of an accident to ask an illegal favor of another officer. The camera retraces the marks of the accident from the same direction as the vehicle when it hit a freeway-crossing alligator and flipped over, killing the reptile and apparently at least one passenger. Following McDonagh’s angry exchange with the officer, the camera shifts modes and offers a POV shot from an onlooking alligator off the side of the road. The animal views the carnage before finally turning around and wandering away. This documentary-style camera POV gives an alternate perspective of a scene being viewing by only two human vantage points: simple disregard for the event and professional handling of it. More significantly, though, this is one of at least three appearances in the film by reptiles (see also the iguanas and the snake). Reptilian creatures evoke first things, the prehistoric, the remnant of what is now largely extinct. In the same way as the world of post-Katrina New Orleans regresses back to an earlier, more chaotic and hellish state, so also does McDonagh, who is one with his environs.
The term “amoral” is very popular nowadays. Particularly in the movies, whenever a bad person wallows in his/her vices, showing little or no hint of goodness, critics love to apply this dubious term to them. There seems to be little understanding of the difference between the amoral and the immoral. An individual who utterly gives into vice and evil, while maintaining a conscience and understanding what it is to be good, is simply immoral. This describes Lieutenant McDonagh better than the term “amoral” could, indicative as that term is of non-morality, a universe devoid of moral concepts. The point of Bad Lieutenant is to illustrate the basic nature of human beings, who so easily suture themselves to their surroundings and permit their own actions and mental dispositions to compromise accordingly.