Back in 1992 as a 15-year-old watching ‘Bad Lieutenant’, the experience seemed as naughty as watching porn, and thus became a sensation. After all, there was full frontal male nudity, rampant drug use, masturbation, and a vile and disgusting act of rape. For these reasons, it’s a film not easily forgotten, but rewatching the film as a mature adult, the film floats above its salacious subject matter as a near masterpiece of cinema.
Bad Lieutenant (1992) dir. Abel Ferrera
Starring: Harvey Keitel, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon, Zoe Lund
By Alan Bacchus
It’s one of the most literal and appropriate titles in the history of cinema. We’re dropped into the trainwreck lifestyle of a nameless NYC Lieutenant played by Harvey Keitel. We first see him dropping his kids off at school, swearing, shouting, not wearing seatbelts, and when the kids are gone, doing a couple of bumps of coke to jumpstart his day. The coke is the tame stuff for the Lieutenant. Though we’re never quite sure what drug he’s doing, we see him go through about every procedure there is to administer coke, crack, meth and heroin. To fuel his addiction, without second thought, he rips off dealers and steals evidence to trade for more drugs or to sell for cash to feed his gambling addiction.
It’s the baseball playoffs and he’s placing bets on every game with as much recklessness as his police actions. With each loss he doubles his wager to make back the money he’s lost, and pretty soon he’s betting tens of thousands of dollars, which he doesn’t have. It’s not hard to see where this is going, but when he encounters the gruesome rape case of a nun, he finds, however small, a moral conscience and a sudden desire to confess, repent and seek forgiveness.
The Lieutenant is more than just a bad cop, he's a carcass of a man, so undignified, so irresponsible, so depraved he makes Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth look righteous. From his point of view the narrative timeline is like a blur, days and nights meld together, people move in and out of his presence, sometimes motivating him, sometimes feeding him like a child.
It’s easy to see Harvey Keitel’s performance as one of the greatest ever exhibitions of thespian skills on screen. His ability to expose himself literally and figuratively and find such a raw emotional core is incredible, which makes it easy to miss the marvel of Abel Ferrara’s direction of the picture. With the aid of his wideangle handheld camera, Ferrara allows Keitel to freely move around and create his own space. Often we’re just following Keitel around town, through a nightclub, in a dingy and dark alley, or in his car listening to the radio. The script, which, according to the special features documentary, was a mere 60 pages, served as a loosely structured creative platform to allow Keitel to build his character naturally.
Ferrara captures the drug use with startling realism. The most painful scene occurs late when Keitel, already stoned out of his skull, walks into the apartment of his supplier/mistress, calmly sits down and with a slow and deliberate procedure the woman injects him with heroin. The scene is so frightening to us because we can’t help but be fascinated with how this must feel for Keitel. Thus is the power of the film, the ability of Ferrara and Keitel to almost make us feel what it’s like to do these drugs.
In fact, the woman who administers the drug is Zoe Lund, the co-writer of the film who unfortunately had her own tragic story of addiction and overdose, a story recounted with poignancy on the special features documentary.
Ferrara’s viewpoint on the Lieutenant’s life is the same viewpoint of Martin Scorsese in many of his films – a distinctly Catholic take on the subject. The Lieutenant’s fascination with the Church and the heroic figure of Christ could be seen as an extension of Keitel’s Charlie character from Mean Streets - a man who wants to be devout but is unsure what that means. At the end of the film, from someone else’s point of view, his act of forgiveness for the rapists might seem futile, but as dramatized by Ferrara it allows him to accept his own death with as much peace as possible.