In another universe or dimension, Werner Herzog’s remake would have made a truly amazing horror film; in certain communities, I would hazard, the unfolding events are more terrifying than any vampire, alien or zombie.
Think about it: An unhinged, drug-addled cop with a gambling problem and a predilection for shaking down citizens for drugs, who steals from the evidence locker, terrorizes the powerless and ignores rules he doesn’t like. This character is essentially a boogieman of the ghetto, a story the disenfranchised and economically/racially oppressed tell their children to keep them from a life of crime. ‘Drop out of school, or steal a car, and Officer McDonaugh will get you!’
In one scene, McDonaugh shows up at someone’s house (I honestly don’t remember the context) and proceeds to smoke weed in the man’s bedroom with uniformed officers waiting outside. The former rambles a terrifying and unhinged theory on life, the universe and everything after sending out the other officers so he can ‘be alone’ with the frightened suspect, even offering him a hit. The fellow is being coerced into giving up information, with the veiled threat that McDonaugh will plant the very weed he’s smoking on the man once he’s being arrested.
This plays into the general populace’s ambivalence about The Thin Blue Line: we all want to believe in Office Friendly, but movies and TV have convinced us that at their worst cops are a sadistic brotherhood who viciously protect their own, and at their best are brave men and women who secretly daydream about vigilantism after years of witnessing horror.
Perhaps that is the entire reason the film (ostensibly a remake except for the fact that Herzog insists it isn’t) is set in New Orleans, a city whose pre-Katrina police force was legendary for being the most corrupt in the United States. McDonaugh’s actions certainly have consequences, and the descending steps of his downward spiral are less news to his peers and colleagues than cuneiform. But we aren’t interested in seeing him punished for his misdeeds; after all, it’s more than clear the character’s life is punishment enough.
Nicholas Cage’s performance has been widely discussed and praised; indeed, the story and other characters take a backseat to McDonaugh’s unraveling, and really aren’t missed. In one scene, a slowly closing door reveals him lying in wait for an old woman and her nurse in order to interrogate them. His eyes are wide and unblinking, his clothes and hair disheveled as he hasn’t showered, slept or eaten in days. As he menaces them from behind the door, struggling not to let the effects of the heroin he accidentally snorted get to him, while running an electric shaver over his face. Never has an act of self-maintenance seemed so menacing, so cold, and so hilarious at the same time.
Many people will watch the film and treat it as a huge joke; a drug-frenzied romp in the tradition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the ends justify the means and the hero overcame all odds, including his crippling addiction and gambling habit. There’s a certain charm in laughing at the character after all, but for me it was more like whistling past the graveyard. We laugh at things for different reasons–sometimes it’s because something frightens us or makes us uncomfortable, and that could certainly be applicable here.
Upon my viewing I found a monster much more terrifying than any of the paltry CG threats crowding the big screen these days. Dirty cops rank somewhere above ghosts and below flesh-eating bacteria on my ‘Nightmares’ hierarchy.