by Abel Ferrara.
Screenplay by Zoe Tamarlaine Lund and Abel Ferrara.
Cinematography by Ken Kelsch.
Music by Joe Delia.
Starring: Harvey Keitel,
Victor Argo, Paul Calderone, Leonard Thomas, Stella Keitel.
By Jim Emerson
As the otherwise nameless title character in Abel Ferrara's
NC-17-rated Bad Lieutenant, Harvey Keitel plays an NYPD detective who
compulsively places outlandish bets he can't cover, sticks needles in his arm and shoots
up, snorts coke seconds after dropping his kids off at school, cavorts nakedly and
drunkenly with prostitutes and masturbates in front of teenage girls. Meanwhile, he's
investigating the brutal rape of a nun.
The ads for Bad Lieutenant play up the movie's sordid, sensationalistic side
(though why a strategically obscured full-frontal photo of a naked Harvey Keitel would be
expected to help sell tickets, I really don't know). And if you're familiar with Ferrara's
movies (Ms. 45, King of New York), you know that sleaze is certainly a
major part of his sensibility. In its early scenes, Bad Lieutenant wallows in
nightmare gutter scum along with its eponymous protagonist. The movie's portrayal of the
Lieutenant's desperation and degradation is often horrifyingly (even sadistically) funny,
as in a scene in which he attempts to lift a bag of cocaine from a crime scene; or another
in which he is driving through midtown Manhattan, so fucked up and outraged over
developments in a Mets-Dodger game on which he's placed a staggering bet that he takes out
his piece and blasts away at his dashboard radio.
But Bad Lieutenant is more than just another look at
that hackneyed "seamy underbelly" of urban American life. This is, in some ways,
a devoutly Catholic movie about sin and redemption (well, aren't all Catholic movies about
sin and redemption?). Keitel puts himself so far out there (and I'm not just talking about
the full-frontal scene, which is probably the main reason for the NC-17 rating) that we
actually start to feel there's something at stake (for humanity, perhaps) in what happens
to this exceptionally awful guy. The title (there's no "The") is a
straightforward description of the Lieutenant: He's a bad man, he does bad things, he has
no redeeming qualities of compassion or sensitivity. He's just a bad lieutenant in every
way. He's even a lousy cop -- and not just because he's a corrupt, whoring junkie.
But what finally pushes him over the edge is not drugs or sex or gambling or any of the
other forms of corruption which have rotted the Lieutenant's soul. What drives him mad,
and toward redemption, is the nun who was raped on the altar of her church by two young
hoodlums: She has already forgiven her assailants and has no desire for
"justice" or "retribution" or any of the concepts that drive, and give
meaning to, the Lieutenant's personal and professional life.
Bad Lieutenant is bookended by howls of anguish from
its title charater. The first comes when he's staggering around an apartment naked, bombed
out of his mind, with the prostitutes. The Lieutenant is not a party guy: He gets no
pleasure from his transgressions but seems driven by demons to abase himself as much as is
humanly possible. The final cry of agony comes when he has to plumb the dark depths of his
own soul to decide what to do about the punks who raped the nun. He can take the law
(man's and God's) into his own hands by either blowing these sinners away, or by taking it
upon himself to absolve them (thereby assuming the role of priest and confessor). It tears
him apart to consider these options once he's tracked them down, but in his own twisted,
confused and rather pathetic way he also sees them as possible paths out of the personal
hell in which he's become mired. Bad Lieutenant ventures so deeply into its
protagonist's head that we actually begin to understand the Lieutenant's desperate,
convoluted spiritual logic as he assumes the lead role in his own hellish Passion Play.
The movie drags you down right along with the Lieutenant. I
mean, you honestly can't help but get off a little on the movie's portrayal of this guy's
no-holes-barred appetite for self-destruction. Watching him stick a needle in his arm may
make you wince, but there's an illicit thrill to it, too. It isn't glamorous, or even
pleasurable, but you can't turn away. The Lieutenant's life is like a car accident
happening in slow motion: It's fascinating and ghastly.
With this and Reservoir Dogs under his belt, the long-underappreciated Harvey
Keitel (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, The Duellists, The Last
Temptation of Christ, Thelma & Louise) should finally get some of the
recognition he deserves. So few actors would expose this kind of raw, emotional and
physical nakedness. This is a harrowing performance that works on several levels at once:
funny, appalling, moving. Bad Lieutenant is one of the best movies of the year,
but it isn't easy. Neither, however, is the twisted road to redemption.
Back to screening room