There’s always something interesting about anti-heroes in film. They’re bad guys by nature, and usually the person we’re rooting for. The anti-hero can be a menacing killer, a despicable business man, or a mentally unstable psycho. The unconventional manner in which they choose to act out heroic roles – solving crimes, rescuing a helpless victim, saving an entire city – can change the viewer around. We end up hoping they will do whatever it takes, however they have to do it.
Some of film’s most famous and complex characters are anti-heroes. Memorable icons like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Gordon Gecko from Wall Street, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow from Bonnie and Clyde, and one of cinema’s most well-known anti-heroes, Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver. All of these characters have one thing in common, one way or another. They all have significant flaws.
These flaws lead the characters down a dark path, away from strict heroism, yet they’re often more human to the audience than Hollywood’s traditional hero. They may not have much courage or honesty, but the anti-hero proves to be more relatable to people, seen fighting and losing against the struggles of life we all deal with.
In Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, Lt. Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage) propels the film with strong anti-hero qualities. He starts off as an already crooked New Orleans Police Sergeant, but when he injures his back trying to save a prisoner trapped by Hurricane Katrina’s flood, he’s prescribed Vicodin to help with his back pain.
Six months later, Lieutenant McDonagh is more crooked than ever. He’s expanded his drug intake to cocaine and marijuana, he’s stealing drugs from the police evidence room for himself, and he’s setting up and scaring victims by abusing his rights as a cop. To get more drugs.
So why do we root for this man when he’s given an investigation case on the murder of five illegal immigrants? I think it’s human nature for the audience to see, to want to see, the best in people who aren’t showing it off. McDonagh has been in bad condition for the past six months, and his decision making has been more for wrong than for right. As the movie progresses we see that he’s doing the best he can to solve the case.
He continues to take drugs and become more insane. Maybe he has to threaten an elderly woman’s oxygen supply and become friends with the enemy to get answers, but in the end, he is committed to his job. In a late scene, McDonagh’s partner wants to kill instead of arrest their suspect, like being told to let the trapped prisoner drown in the beginning of the film. His instincts as a Lieutenant take over. He becomes infuriated over the idea of killing a man without orders.
Even an anti-hero can change his ways. It shows good character progression to see McDonagh become a relatively better man at the end, when he drops his drug habits and attempts to be less of a vigilante. He settles down with his pregnant girlfriend and is promoted to Captain of the force. McDonagh proves to be a great character through this progression, as well as in the bulk of the film when he’s at his worst, trying to do good the only way he can.
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