Still courtesy of First Look Studios.
Anyone who woke up at 12:01 this morning to read the results of the Toronto Film Critics Association 2009 awards may have been a bit disappointed. It’s not that this was a particularly miserable year for films. It’s just that anyone who stays on top of these things may find the results a bit ho-hum. Steve McQueen’s Hunger and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds seems a pretty sensible split-vote for Best Picture, and Kathryn Bigelow was a shoe-in for Best Director. Ditto Christoph Waltz, whose star turn as the scene-stealing “Jew Hunter” in Basterds made him an obvious pick for Best Supporting Actor. But in a list with few surprises (apart from all the support for Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air), there emerged one dark horse.
When mulling over the Best Actor award, who did the TFCA ultimately honour? It sure wasn’t George “Movie-a-Week” Clooney or Hunger’s Michael Fassbender. Nor was it the consistently impressive Viggo Mortensen as the bedraggled Omega Dad in Hillcoat’s The Road. Nope. It was Nicolas Cage, honoured for his manic histrionics as opiate-abusing cop Terrance McDonagh in Werner Herzog’s fantastic Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.
So what’s the big deal?
Well, for one, it proves the TFCA willing to take chances. While many will write off Cage as a hopeless hack who’s managed to make a cottage-industry out of movies dealing with treasure-hunting and predicting the future, this year’s sort-of remake of Abel Ferarra’s Bad Lieutenant proved that Cage still has the sort of chops that netted him an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas back in 1995. And even though Cage has emerged as something of an online meme these days—with YouTubers gleefully cutting together the most laughable bits from 2006’s The Wicker Man or pop artist Brandon Bird selling Nic Cage playsets on his website—appreciating his performance in Bad Lieutenant doesn’t rely on your having recuperated Cage ironically.
Weighed against other performances this year, Cage’s is truly exceptional. Sure, Clooney’s charming half-smirk may say something about the geist of this disposable, digitally drenched culture, and Fassbender radically transformed himself as the starving IRA organizer Bobby Sands. But Cage does something more. He acts. Like, he really acts.
As Lieutenant McDonagh, Cage is electric. He embodies both his character’s slumped posture and bent morality with conviction. He nails the whole corrupt/corrupted dichotomy. He moves between states of drug-addled disorder with believability. He swings between effortless cool and Magnum-waving frenzy with schizophrenic precision. He smokes crack with Xzibit. He calls perps “shit-bird.” He half-assedly tries to rescue a prostitute (Eva Mendes) while also fuelling her coke habit. Most importantly, he entertains. He makes you imagine how fun and exhilarating it must have been to first see Brando in On the Waterfront, DeNiro in Raging Bull, or Herzog’s own Kinski in Aguirre. Cage also proves just how talented he can be when he’s not chasing pay cheques to make mortgage payments on his Bavarian castle, aviary, tropical island, and haunted house. If you haven’t caught him in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (or BL:POCNO to fans) yet, do yourself a favour and see why Cage is so deserving of the TFCA’s accolades.
So let the other major cities and their local cabals of critics have the all Clooneys, Firths, and Fassbenders. Toronto will take Cage’s Terrance McDonagh, lucky crack-pipe and all.