Today’s cinema adventure: Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s 1992 feature starring Harvey Keitel as a corrupt, alcohol-and-drug-abusing New York policeman whose life begins to implode as he investigates the rape of a nun. Controversial for its graphic and frequent depiction of drug use, as well as for its gritty realism and its subject matter, it found an appreciative cult audience and helped to reinvigorate its star’s career. Following the title character through a period of several days, it gives us a portrait of a man spiraling out of control; caught up in an arrogant game of deceit in which he abuses his power to serve his own appetites for sex, drugs, and domination, he begins to crack when his gambling on the World Series places him in an ever-escalating debt and threatens to bring his reign of excess crashing down.
Director Ferrara began his filmmaking career with violent exploitation thrillers like The Driller Killer and Ms. 45; and this movie bears a strong resemblance in tone to the grainy, visceral films of that genre. However, though Bad Lieutenant feels as if it is going to explode with violence throughout, it has a minimum of bloodshed, onscreen at least; rather, the pregnant expectation of horrors to come is generated by its central character’s tense, broiling emotional state, a palpable force which is the true focus of Ferrara’s concerns. The lurid world surrounding his troubled protagonist- a world of crime scenes, crack-heads, and prostitutes, contrasted with family-oriented domestic strongholds (littered with the iconography of Catholicism) and the sacred austerity of the church- serves merely as a backdrop for the one-man passion play being enacted here; the true plot has little to do with either the details of his investigation or the escalation of his self-destructive behavior, except insofar as these things affect his progression towards personal catharsis. For despite Ferrara’s cinéma vérité approach, in which he captures the seedy New York underworld and explores the blurring of the lines between the good guys and bad guys that inhabit it, Bad Lieutenant is a film about Catholic guilt and redemption. By paralleling the story of this man’s personal unraveling with his investigation into the defilement perpetrated against the church and the nun who represents it, the movie provides a symbolic connection to his own defiling of the sanctity of a society he has sworn to protect and his betrayal of the cultural values he has been trusted to uphold. It’s a theme common to many films exploring criminal activity within insular communities: the conflict between deeply ingrained religious ethics and violent antisocial behavior is repeatedly seen in the work of filmmakers with roots in such cultures; indeed, it is a particular hallmark of Martin Scorsese, with whose work Bad Lieutenant shares many elements (not the least of which is the presence of Keitel)- a fact which no doubt contributed to the great director’s championing of it as one of the ten best movies of the nineties.
Of course, it would be a drastic mistake to characterize Bad Lieutenant as a religious movie; instead, it is more in the vein of a social docu-drama, an examination of the peculiarly dissociated psychology necessary for the reconciliation between two such opposing behavioral mandates. Existing in a shadowy sub-culture where acts of violence and oppression are requirements for success and status, the spiritual strictures against such transgressions must be sublimated to allow for the needs of worldly survival; in the case of our nameless police lieutenant, this process is achieved through a mountain of hedonistic distractions, but eventually, faced with a summons to pay the debts he owes in both worlds, his guilt comes roaring to the surface despite a titanic struggle to maintain his denial. This painful interior war is made crystal clear in Keitel’s remarkable performance; the actor delivers an intensely raw portrayal, stripping himself naked for the camera (both literally and figuratively) with a bold honesty that is almost unbearable to watch. He is alternately hateful and pitiable, an embodiment of hubris living in the lonely isolation of a fiercely defended bubble, and when he lets the walls come down it is as intense and terrifying as any sensationalistic bloodbath- perhaps, in fact, in an age when audiences are desensitized to the excessive depiction of violence on the screen, such a harsh revelation of human frailty is even more disturbing.
The unflinching truthfulness of Keitel’s performance, which Ferrara wisely uses as the meat and bones of his film, is complemented by the director’s aforementioned documentary style; working from a screenplay by actress Zoe Lund (who appears in a small but significant role)- to which his own name is also credited, along with Paul Calderon and Victor Argo (both of whom also appear)- he seems to have relied on improvisation for much of the final dialogue, which adds to the realistic, in-the-moment feel, further enhanced by his minimal use of such standard storytelling techniques as cutaways and close-ups (though this latter conceit sometimes has the consequence of obscuring key plot details). To complete the effect, cinematographer Ken Keisch utilizes mostly natural lighting and a stationary camera, and the action takes place in authentic New York locations; the result is a film as free of artifice as is likely possible for a work of fiction, though Ferrara does allow himself the luxury of the occasional artfully-composed shot or blatantly symbolic embellishment.
Before summing up my reactions to Bad Lieutenant, it is probably important for me to add a disclaimer: Catholic guilt is not a subject that interests me greatly. Though undoubtedly relevant to a great many viewers and widely applicable to a larger audience by virtue of association to the larger theme of balancing ethical and practical concerns of living, it’s a subject that, for me, seems a bit exclusionary (in that it implies a special burden for a certain segment of the population) and sometimes even smacks of self-pity and hypocrisy. That said, I can certainly appreciate the validity in an artist’s expression of their insight and observations through their work, particularly regarding a deeply personal issue connected to their cultural background and their experiences within it; I can appreciate it even more when it is handled with the degree of technical and artistic proficiency shown by Ferrara with this film. There is no question that this is a deeply felt, superbly crafted piece of filmmaking, and even if that were not the case, Harvey Keitel’s performance alone would be more than enough to recommend it. As excellent as it is, though, and as unique in its specificity of perspective, I can’t help feeling left strangely cold by Bad Lieutenant. It may be that, in the end, Keitel’s character is so irredeemably unlikeable that his last ditch efforts at spiritual atonement feel like a sham, a gambler’s desperate scramble to hedge his bets- though perhaps that is part of the point. It may also be that the whole thing feels too familiar, like a litany that has been repeated so many times it has lost its meaning- but then again, perhaps that is part of the point, too. Perhaps this matter of disobedient Catholic bad boys is a lesson that must be repeated, endlessly and in as many ways as possible, until the world is at last ready to move beyond the bargaining mentality that allows the rationalization of atrocious acts by presuming future forgiveness through atonement; but now I’ve moved out of the realm of cinematic criticism and into that of social commentary. At any rate, I suspect many viewers, like myself, may have difficulty finding a connection to the dreadful cycle of spiritual realignment portrayed in Bad Lieutenant; the rest will no doubt find it a powerful and meaningful experience. Either way, it’s an impressive piece of moviemaking- and the performance at its center is certainly as fine an example of screen acting as you will ever see.