The Projector

Denouement: Werner Herzog’s Mesmerizing Screen Presence

Will Leitch
The Projector

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I still can't believe Werner Herzog is going to play the villain in a Tom Cruise action movie. It's only been a couple of weeks since the news broke that Herzog would play a character called "The Zec" in Cruise's (and Christopher McQuarrie's) "One Shot," an adaptation of the Jack Reacher novels, and it still hasn't quite sunken in. Werner Herzog. "Fitzcarraldo" Werner Herzog. "Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe" Werner Herzog. Lingering shots of staring lizards Werner Herzog. (I always imagine him standing next to animals for hours with a camera, waiting for the animal to start staring at it.) This guy isn't just playing the bad guy in a movie, he's playing the bad guy in a Tom Cruise movie.

Not just any bad guy in a Tom Cruise movie either. The Zec. The Zec is "an ex-prisoner of war who arranges and stages the killing and is the head of the conspiracy." And that's when it hit us: Werner Herzog isn't gonna play this part because he's somehow the embodiment of evil. He's going to play an ex-prisoner of war. He's going to play the part because he is sad.

For all the Herzogian weirdness, there is a distinct and profound streak of sadness in everything Herzog does. It really struck us when seeing his newest film, "Into The Abyss," earlier this week. The film, his best since "Grizzly Man," is about a 2001 triple homicide in a small town in Texas, and all the different lives it ruins in its wake, in myriad unpredictable ways. The movie comes prebranded as The Werner Herzog Capital Punishment Film, but it's about so much more than that: It's about how the sins of the past are revisited, in perpetuity, on the future; as the saying goes, "The child is the father of the man." It's an incredibly moving film, and, for the first time in a while, Herzog's screen presence is one of the reasons why.

Sometimes -- often, even -- Herzog gets in the way as narrator of his films, and I don't just mean that notorious voice. In "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," I regularly found my eyes glancing away from the ancient cave artwork and toward wherever Herzog wandered in from the side of the frame. Herzog is certainly entertaining, but sometimes he overwhelms his subject: You're constantly being reminded you're watching a Werner Herzog Documentary, not just a documentary.

Not so in "Into The Abyss," though. Herzog actually enhances the material, serving as the audience surrogate, asking questions we'd ask, reacting (often emotionally) the way we find ourselves reacting. It's a tragic story, and Herzog treats it as such, but when he becomes a part of this story, it feels right. Because his morose, we-are-all-just-dust-at-the-end-the-day regardless tone (along with his welcome bits of black humor) fits the morose story perfectly.

And it might just make him something more than a Tom Cruise supervillain, turn him into one of those special tragic villains that make thrillers that much more exciting. The stakes are higher, and we care more about both sides. Everyone thinks Herzog's gonna be a great Cruise bad guy because his accent is malevolent or something. But I bet he's the perfect choice simply because he's Werner Herzog.

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