Bad Lieutenant. 1992. Directed by Abel Ferrara. Screenplay by Zoë Lund.
Starring Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderone, Leonard Thomas, Robin Burrows, Frankie Thorn, Victoria Bastel, & Paul Hipp.
Rated R. 96 minutes.
Abel Ferrara is a director you either love or hate. That’s a cliche statement to make; arguably no more true than it’s ever been than in regards to this guy. Personally, I love him. His films are dangerous, viscerally engaging. They are often pure moments of catharsis that engage our dark heart. At the same time, underneath the bleak and rugged exterior of his work there’s often another message altogether, whether emotional, personal, political, or otherwise. Each film is just as controversial, sometimes more so, than the last.
Perhaps because of the lead character and the subject matter, Bad Lieutenant takes the controversy cake. In a movie that deals with the rape of a nun, a boozing drug and gambling addicted police officer – who commits even more crimes than imaginable – among other things, nothing is taboo.
Whereas the news will never go as deep as this on a renegade man of the law, Ferrara uses this fictional piece to penetrate the corrupt soul of a dirty rotten cop when he is confronted with something more terrible than even himself. The overarching theme is religious, though so much of this film speaks to our relationship with law enforcement, their transgressions, and how society – the people – move forward after their trust has been shaken in them almost irreparably.
My reasoning for why a certain amount of people find Ferrara too hard to handle is because he touches on the raw nerves too heavily. With Bad Lieutenant, he came hard at the concept of police corruption at a sensitive time. This was released in 1992, a year after Rodney King was beaten by police in Los Angeles. Right around the time when these guys had been acquitted and then the Watts Riots happened, I believe. Either way, a volatile moment to release such an inflammatory work of cinema. Nevertheless, Ferrara is always there, a filmmaker you could put in parallel with someone like Pier Paolo Pasolini (whom he made a film about recently) at times. He is consistently ready to examine the hard to look at picture, the inconceivable truths.
Just like King of New York confronted certain issues about who the gangsters really are in society and how the social mobility of criminals is facilitated in America by the ever conquering dollar, Bad Lieutenant takes a deep, brutal look at how men on the supposedly right side of the law aren’t always in their right mind, nor are they always on that right side; sometimes their penchant for crossing that line and living on the other side with a badge is all too dominant.
But then the larger question he asks if focused on redemption, and can someone like the titular bad lieutenant ever be redeemed after all they’ve allowed and every criminal act they’ve committed? Or is there are a complete point of no return? Ferrara centres this issue with the inclusion of faith, specifically that of the Catholic religion, one that allows sin if it is confessed, admitted, atoned for and rectified. Not only is the nun plot in there, but Jesus Christ himself wanders in now and then to make a little appearance, begging Ferrara’s question: is the naughty cop past even the help of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? On top of everything, the Lieutenant also asks outright the questions many of us wonder, such as where is God when the police can’t get the job done? Where is Jesus then?
A controversial aspect of the film moves us into SPOILER TERRITORY, so turn back lest ye be spoiled.
At the end, the dirty cop does something strange – he lets the rapists go, sending them off with a ton of money, telling them to never come back to the city. While most of us might have wanted him to kill them, after all he’s done, this speaks to his true redemption. The nun didn’t want them dead after all they did to her. Faith found her forgiveness. And in that final act the Lieutenant essentially forgives the criminals, hideous as they are. In that act he’s able to find a piece of that religious clarity. Even if it’s religion, even if it means nothing in the end, there’s a peace of mind the Lieutenant feels. If only for a moment. But most people see that as a foolish act by the cop. Instead, it speaks to his unlikely redemption and the power of faith to turn even the darkest souls back around to the light, somehow, some way.
The realism Ferrara uses crossed with a fever dream-like quality at certain points is what makes Bad Lieutenant so powerful. It’s essentially like us riding along with the Lieutenant, experiencing his bewildered, drug-induced state from one moment the next. Of course nearer to the end when he has a vision of Christ this feeling reaches its pinnacle, as does his hallucinatory journey.
This movie is absolutely dominated by the fearless and fantastic performance by Keitel. He dives headfirst into this guy’s essence, apparently staying in character throughout the duration of production. Rumour has it that during the scene with the two girls in the car where the Lieutenant jerks off while verbally abusing them, Keitel supposedly was masturbating for real, and actually shot one over the car door/window. Some say that the scene remained in during certain versions, however, I’m not sure how credible those claims are exactly. Nevertheless, even without the crazy stories it is a career best performance for a man whose career is filled with solid performances. As the Lieutenant, Keitel manages to stay compelling even while being less than likeable. It is the darkness in him and the will to redeem himself later clashing which provides so much of the tension Keitel brings out in this character.
Mostly this cop is an awful display of human behaviour under the guise of being an upholder of the law. In between the cracks, though, Keitel lets us into this man’s life and his struggle. By the end, it is left with us to decide what we think, and whether or not he felt redeemed. Because the existential crisis of our lives doesn’t come down to religion, rather it ends up on us: if somewhere in that black heart the Lieutenant found forgiveness, from Jesus or a dream or a heroin vision, then that may be all he required.
And when all is said and done – SPOILER AHEAD – does he, like Jesus supposedly did for humanity, die for the sins of those two boys? In part it’s for his own sins, yes. Yet isn’t there some part of this, after surviving so long (as he said earlier: “Nobody can kill me“), that comes as a result of their sins. Symbolically, his death comes as the crucifixion did for Jesus, and he gives himself up for the sins of the two rapists.
One of the best cop films of all-time. Particularly over the past 24 years, there haven’t been many movies about police officers that bear down on the truth, other than one or two here and there. Bad Lieutenant is crazy, unhinged, it has an intense performance from Keitel to make it all work, coming across heavy as Ferrara wanted.
Best of all, Ferrara and the screenplay from Zoë Lund examine our relationship with corruption, the renegade men with badges, how religion and the law intersect, as well as they keep questioning how faith plays into crime, the repercussions of vile acts, and so on. This is a brilliant, underrate movie that is more than a cult crime film. It is a disturbing look at issues we ought to pay more attention to, lest we find ourselves lost further in the muck and the mire of corruption. In a day and age where American police are all too often running wild, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant could’ve been made yesterday.