Bad Lieutenant (Abel Ferrara, 1992)


What “Bad Lieutenant” basically is is the Harvey Keitel Variety Hour, and the “variety” involves all the various stages of drug, alcohol and gambling addiction and utter depravity as a crooked cop.  It’s pretty much a 90 minute showcase for Keitel’s acting chops, so needless to say “Bad Lieutenant” lives and dies by him and pretty much him alone.  The “story” (or what little story there is) around the Lieutenant is shoddy and uneven, and the production value haphazard, but hey, Keitel is extraordinary, so the movie lives rather than dies.

I’ve heard some call “Bad Lieutenant” the movie that Scorsese never made, but I don’t see it as anything near that caliber.  Abel Ferrara simply doesn’t have the directing chops of Martin Scorsese, and yes the closest comparison that could be made is to “Mean Streets,” but that movie was brilliant in portraying the empty lives of low-level hoods drifting aimlessly day-to-day.  “Bad Lieutenant” doesn’t have the arc or coherency of a “Mean Streets,” existing more as separate vignettes to show Harvey Keitel’s acting chops in separate situations where he can do depraved thing after depraved thing.  In one scene he steals money from would-be grocery store robbers, then he takes heroin and goes off into la-la land, in another scene he weeps, completely naked, in a room with a couple of hookers, and later bets money he doesn’t have (basically betting his life) on the Dodgers while in a drug-induced stupor, and in perhaps his most despicable act pulls over a car driven by a couple of teenage girls and propositions them in exchange for their freedom, basically committing rape with words instead of anatomy.  Yeah, there’s story threads of sorts that try to keep everything together, mainly involving the case of a raped nun and the Lieutenant’s life-and-death gambling debt, with the NLCS between the Dodgers and my Mets hovering in the background as a parallel to the Lieutenant’s life of turmoil.  But let’s face it, the main selling point of “Bad Lieutenant” is to see Harvey Keitel do some despicable things, and surprisingly, I think the movie works best when he drifts between these undeniably separate vignettes.  Is it a sloppy structure?  Sure it is, but the sloppiness is held together by a remarkable performance, to the point that “Bad Lieutenant” was like one of those awful car crashes you can’t look away from.  You see Harvey Keitel do some awful things and some awful things go on around him, but you can’t look away because he’s so damn convincing as this tortured soul.  Screw some arbitrary story, I was more interested in a day or two in the life of this pathetic individual, and Keitel had me hook, line and sinker.  It’s a very brave performance and incredibly thankless, which really makes it all the more powerful in the end.  Based on his actions, the Lieutenant (for we never do learn his real name) is a selfish, evil, and completely lost individual, and to say that he’s at the end of his rope is a complete understatement.

But perhaps not beyond redemption.

Yeah, using the rape of a nun as the catalyst for the Lieutenant’s possible redemption is as melodramatic as can be, and that was a sticking point for me, but in such an uneven movie, I think such an uneven and exaggerated, melodramatic crime somehow fits.  Throughout “Bad Lieutenant” you’re just barraged with images and acts that are really hard to stomach, and really are the height of one man’s capacity to commit evil (ironic considering his day job of preventing such evil).  It makes sense, then, that the act of evil that begins to jar this man out of his depraved stupor is against what’s just about as pure an image of absolute goodness as you can get: a nun.  I mean look, the scene of the rape itself is appropriately disgusting and jarring, though intercutting it with Jesus’ crucifixion seemed kind of overtly symbolic to me, in a bad way, bordering on the outlandishly tasteless.  Later, the Lieutenant kissing the feet of a hallucination of Jesus himself in the church was also an odd choice by Abel Ferrara, I thought: attention-grabbing, yes, but also tasteless, and a painfully obvious signifier of the movie’s theme of redemption in the face of absolute evil (and perhaps an ill-advised attempt at homage to Scorsese’s often-used Christian undertones that just doesn’t work here).  I would’ve preferred it if Ferrara stuck with the absolutely gritty realism he had before (which is really just messy filmmaking that somehow translates into a gritty hyper-realism that works perfectly in this kind of material), as the Lieutenant in a drug and alcohol-induced stupor drifted among the dead souls of this urban hell.  

Despite that, though, this scene where the Lieutenant breaks down in the Church before Jesus, hysterical and belligerent and even more vulnerable than we’ve ever seen him, is devastating.  Prior, when he questions the nun who’s somehow forgiven her attackers, he shows perhaps the only shred of lucidity we’ll ever see out of him.  He asks her if she even has an inkling of a desire for revenge, or even if she’s considered the possibility of these men repeating such a heinous crime.  These are questions I found myself wanting to ask this stubborn woman of the cloth, and it’s in that moment, and soon after with his complete guilt-ridden breakdown, I think, that we’re able to at last identify with this man who we have seen do some terrible things.  The Lieutenant (and indeed Keitel in a searingly honest and unfathomably ugly performance) has completely laid himself out before us for judgment like he’s laid himself out before Jesus.  He never completely turns or finds redemption, especially based on a very questionable final decision concerning the rapists.  But perhaps for the first time in his life, he does something he considers appropriate according to his skewed version of justice.  And as such, you have to consider his final fate as what’s coming to him.  It’s a grim fate for The Lieutenant, but based on what he’s realized about himself and the world around him, I don’t think he’d have it any other way. 

Even before his little belligerent epiphany in the church, consider when he goes berserk in his car and shoots his radio when the Mets get one game closer to the pennant (IMPOSSIBLE, by the way, it’ll never happen.  I’m a sad-sack of a Met fan, so I’d know 😛 ), and he in turn gets one day closer to his destiny of self-imposed doom.  We shouldn’t feel sympathy for a man who we’ve seen do some really awful things, but his guilt and panic and despair over the situation he’s gotten himself into ooze out of Harvey Keitel, hidden behind anger over something as simple as Strawberry hitting into the game-ending double play, so somehow we sympathize with this man.  It’s for that one reason that I think I’ve just watched something special.  If the movie itself isn’t special, then Harvey Keitel’s performance surely is.


2 comments so far

  1. olof on

    oh man you’re such a snob…all you can think about concerning directing is these big mainstream people – kurosawa, scorcese, blade runner etc etc etc etc….But maybe all the unknown stuff is bad because its just bad? 😆

    point: you might be on the road to becoming a horrible human being, turn left.

  2. Simon M. on

    brother olof, I reached the end of that road a long time ago.

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