Bad Lieutenant

Bad Lieutenant

At least he gets to church every once in a while

dir: Abel Ferrara


It’s tough loving a director who treats you so rough. Sure, some people are into that kind of thing, but I’m certainly not of the ‘Treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ school of relationship maintenance.

Abel Ferrara is a director I’ve admired and, yes, loved for a very long time. Like most long term relationships, there are ups and downs, but this relationship has always had more downs than ups. For the few films of his that I have loved (King of New York, Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral), there have been so many of his that I’ve downright loathed (pretty much everything else he’s ever directed) that it makes you wonder if it’s all worth it.

Do you keep the love going because of a few great moments in the past, when there doesn’t look like there’s any future glory coming? Or do you regretfully realise it’s time to call it quits?

It depends on your personality, I guess, or how deep the love goes.

It is specifically because of how great Bad Lieutenant is that I persist in my love of Ferrara, and my hope that he will one day justify that love again with something new. At the very least, I can watch this on DVD again and remember how great the great times were.

Bad Lieutenant is an amazing, aggressive, transgressive experience. On paper, it sounds like a nightmare: a very corrupt, drug-using cop rambles around New York having ugly adventures and abuses people at random for an hour and a half. His drug use is so frequent that most of the film involves watching Harvey Keitel either: scoring drugs, using drugs, goofing off on the drugs, naked and goofing off on the drugs, or combinations thereof. But there is a tiny bit more going on.

Keitel throws himself into the role with gusto and absolute conviction; not so much looking like an actor playing a fucked up character, but more someone fucking themselves up diabolically for the role. He holds nothing back, keeps nothing in reserve, has no shame, no modesty to draw him back from the edge. He is the Bad Lieutenant.

His character doesn’t even have a name. He is what he does. And what he does is crash and burn in constant motion, destructively slamming into everything in his path, never finding peace or rest except when unconscious. He gives in to every impulse, every ugly desire rising up from his diseased id, and seems to lack even the basic aspects of restraint or humanity.

Two events dog him and act as overarching elements throughout the film: one is the outcome of the baseball playoffs, upon which he bets progressively greater amounts of money, getting deeper and deeper in debt to his mob bookie.

The other is the impact upon him of the rape of a young, beautiful nun (Frankie Thorn) in his precinct. It’s not so much the vicious attack on the nun that affects him, but the manner in which she shields and forgives her attackers.

He cannot understand it. He cannot reconcile himself with it. Clearly, the grace of God is something very far from his current world, but it awakens something within him.

The Bad Lieutenant is a lapsed Catholic, coincidentally sharing the same faith as the writer/director (not really). The extent of his depravity has to do with the distance he feels he’s reached from his Lord Jesus. That distance… well, we can see how far away he feels, or how unrequited his ‘love’ is.

But Jesus is never too far away from the Lieutenant. He even appears before him, bleeding and uncommunicative: is he judging him, is he agreeing with him, is he forgiving him, is he taunting him?

You be the judge. The hardest thing to take as a viewer of this flick isn’t the constant drug use or naked Harvey: it’s the moments when he keens like a wounded animal or abandoned child that really confront or irritate the viewer. Keening, or ‘to keen’ is to wail uncontrollably, the way people do at certain funerals.

And boy does Harvey wail, cry, scream and moan. Since Catholicism obviously plays a big part in the character, in the story and in the mind of the director, there must be at least an attempt at redemption. The Lieutenant is so Bad however (every time we think he’s hit rock bottom, the film finds a new way to convince us what an incoherent, chaotic monster he is), that the redemption we see him desperately searching for is not going to change his character or lead to a happy ending for all concerned. He doesn’t want it, and we sure as hell don’t want it after seeing what his life is like.

Some scenes are just ugly for the sake of ugly (most of his drug taking scenes), others are almost comical (Harvey waving his arms like an idiot in front of a mirror, Harvey dancing like a dick with people thirty years younger than him). Some are so offensive that they’re almost funny, but still remain grounded in the dark reality that is his world (his scene with two teenage Jersey girls). Some scenes go further than just being transgressive, and veer into the realms of exploitation (the delight with which the camera rests upon the naked beauty of the nun on a hospital bed).

A scene when a guy is driving in his car, hears the bad result of a baseball game, and proceeds to shoot the radio whilst still driving can only convince you of just how far beyond normal human behaviour a person can get, and what could push him so far.

Is it a pleasant experience? Sure as hell not. I can’t even guess as to the fraction of movie viewers who would find a film like this entertaining. They’d sure have to have a strong stomach, and be able to tolerate a lot of ugly scenes, and a film without a clear plot that seems to careen from nasty scene to nasty scene. But, as with the best of transgressive cinema, there are underlying themes which tries to justify the depravity; to provoke thought as well as disgust.

I think the film works. As much as Harvey Keitel generally does nothing for me as an actor (I don’t really think he acts, since he never varies in any of his roles), in this he nails the character and achieves a career personal best. It became a running joke after Lieutenant and The Piano that Keitel would only do films if he could get his cock out, but at the very least its constant exposure and nature fits the film and the character.

The upshot of Bad Lieutenant is that I remain steadfast in my devotion to the director, and hope things between us will one day be as good as they were back in the 90s, like when this came out. It could happen, couldn’t it?

8 ways this film reminds me of some great times we used to have back in the 90s out of 10

“Do you have the right to forgive them?” – Bad Lieutenant.