Small Actors: Brad Dourif

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Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans is, more than anything else, a showcase for Nicolas Cage. It barely works as a police procedural, and it stands out as a pretty odd entry in the already-eclectic oeuvre of Werner Herzog. What value the film has comes almost entirely from Cage’s aversion to consistency from scene to scene. It’s his Schizopolis or Holy Motors – a dozen ideas for different characters crammed into one film.

But Cage graces theaters (and, increasingly, VOD) with a handful of deranged performances every year; what makes this one any different?

Well, it’s one thing to surround him with a cast of oddballs and wait for sparks to fly; it’s another to have each of those actors play it totally straight for the sake of contrast. Val Kilmer as an even-tempered cop? Michael Shannon as a put-upon but otherwise even-tempered cop? Fairuza Balk as – that’s right – an even-tempered (mildly kinky) cop? What seems like a lot of squandered lunatic energy may actually have been a canny method of throwing Cage’s rantings and ravings into starker relief. If he’s making Val Kilmer and Michael Shannon look like reasonable guys, he must ave really gone off the deep end, right?

The actor who’s been reined in the most, however, is Brad Dourif. Cast as (Bad) Lt. Terence McDonagh’s long-suffering bookie, Ned Schoenholtz, Dourif comes across as the only person appropriately exasperated by McDonagh’s lack of self-control. They ignore Terence’s hallucinating on the job because he gets his job done, and his girlfriend is blinded by his role as her drug hookup, leaving Ned as the only person who does things for Terence and gets nothing in return.

Dourif does great work with the small role he has here, and it, like many others here, mostly works in light of the roles he’s most famous for. While lacking the explosiveness of a Michael Shannon or the knowing cartoonishness of a Jennifer Coolidge (screaming her head off here as McDonagh’s step-mother, Genevieve), Dourif has been successfully unnerving audiences for nearly 40 years (!); in fact, next year will mark the 40th anniversary of his Oscar-nominated role as tragic, stuttering Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Handsome-yet-feeble, he sort of looked like a teen heartthrob whose eyes had switched sides on his face. There’s something off when you stare at him but it’s hard to say what.

In the decades since then, he’s worked prolifically and consistently, though it’s often tough to recognize him from role to role. He’s best known for two villainous turns in famous franchises: the obviously-named lackey of Saruman, Gríma Wormtongue, in The Lord of the Rings; and the serial killer Charles Lee Ray, whose spirit would ultimately possess a doll named Chucky (whom he also voiced) in the Child’s Play films. Both roles required an actor who you immediately distrust (the former because there are dozens and dozens of characters they needed to fit in, so screen time was at a premium; the latter because you only have a few minutes to get to know the man inside the doll) and both were beautifully served by Dourif.

Chucky wasn’t his only serial killer/murderous possessing spirit: his ‘Gemini Killer’ in The Exorcist III goes through a similar metamorphosis, only aided by Satan instead of voodoo. And Wormtongue wasn’t his only foray into serving evil lords in sci-fi/fantasy adaptations: he wore a fright wig and fright eyebrows as Piter de Vries in David Lynch’s Dune. Anyone who’s had to cast shifty, malevolent, possibly supernatural roles for the last couple decades hasn’t had to look far for their man.

But that’s doing a disservice to Dourif’s talent as an actor. Anyone can be uncomfortable to watch on camera or seem like a creep (there’s a reason, low-level famous as he is, that Tommy Wiseau doesn’t get cast in more movies). His third most famous role is likely Doc Cochrane on Deadwood, a show I’ve only seen a little of but which always seemed to position him as a relatively decent man stuck in a brutal world. And what’s maybe his greatest performance, as Hazel Motes in John Huston’s adaptation of Wise Blood, marries his wild-eyed zealot mode to a recognizably human, though extremely fucked up, veteran of an unnamed war. The book probably never needed a film adaptation, and at times it feels like you’re watching Masterpiece Theater: Gummo, but Dourif is transfixing whenever he’s onscreen. No sidewalk preacher on screen has ever been more convinced of their own righteousness.

All of this is what makes Dourif’s Ned Schoenholtz such a pleasure. He spends most of his screen time asking McDonagh to fix his daughter’s speeding ticket and pleading to be paid what he’s owed. He makes some empty threats but never indicates any real capacity to inflict harm. And he’s genuinely thrilled when McDonagh hits the jackpot betting on a college football game. He’s the closest thing our unhinged hero has to a best friend. And Dourif doesn’t come off as a madman trying to play it straight; Ned is a genuinely normal, well-adjusted person.

(Almost as if to draw more attention to this prolonged feat of casting misdirection, Herzog placed a number of BLPOCNO actors in the other film he was making around the same time, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done, in more traditionally off-putting roles; Michael Shannon is a man who murders his mother with a sword, while Dourif plays the homophobic, Greek-hating uncle who lends him the weapon.)

This is, of course, just skimming the surface of Dourif’s 150+ credits. He’s done a little bit of everything and will likely continue to do so. He’s famous for a couple different kinds of monster movies, including the one in question here. But his performance in Bad Lieutenant doesn’t only provide contrast to the titular officer and emphasize Cage’s insanity; it is also in contrast to a large swath of Dourif’s own career, emphasizing just what a versatile and talented performer he’s always been.