by Brett Gallman
If you have doubts about "Bad Lieutenant" living up to its title, believe me, they'll be washed away within about ten minutes. In that time, you will have seen Harvey Keitel curse out his kids on the way to school, do bumps of cocaine, ignore criminal activity, and engage in a gambling racket. He's one of the most aggressively corrupt cops you'll ever see, but the performance from Keitel is nothing short of brilliant. It's perhaps even a bit transcendent considering how fascinating this film is despite being bereft of an actual plot.Instead, famed sleaze purveyor Abel Ferrara delivers something of a character study wrapped up in a grimy journey though the filthy, sweaty, angry city of New York (whose seething population is captured instantly via the sports talk radio dialogue opening the film). Two sustained threads emerge--the rape of a nun and an ongoing championship series between the Mets and the Dodgers that the lieutenant keeps gambling on. That the latter is always of more concern to him speaks volumes to how far gone he is. I don't think it'd be accurate to just call this guy jaded or world-weary--it's like he's operating purely in the depths of his own hell.
"An arthouse take on faith with grindhouse sensibilities."
While "Bad Lieutenant" might not be as explicitly violent and outrageously gory as Ferrara's more notorious "Driller Killer" and "Ms. 45" (whose star, Zoe Lund, helped write this), it feels every bit as grimy and raw as those films. Despite this, it's an introspective film that's actually concerned with a human condition--it just so happens to be a deeply disturbed condition. This also isn't exactly a battle for one man's soul; no, it's watching the dark, troubling aftermath. The battle is already lost, and we're left with a man burdened by sin, left only to hold onto the carnal pleasures of sex, drugs, and money.
The film does sometimes choke on its own symbolism; obviously, the image of a raped nun is especially on the nose, as we're operating in a godless world. A golden chalice is also stolen from the scene of the crime, which further severs the characters from God and salvation; in some ways, the lieutenant is on a grail quest, only he doesn't really know it. And perhaps more so than any other grail quest, it truly is just an object to be recovered. Still, Catholic guilt practically suffocates the proceedings; Christ imagery is littered throughout, and footage of him agonizing on the cross. Our protagonist is both haunted by the savior and is completely oblivious of him for much of the film.
By the time he realizes all of this, it's too little, too late (at least for his physical body), and Keitel makes us feel it. The performance truly is marvelous in the same way many of Keitel's great performances are; he has a gift at infusing enigmas with a sense of humanity, whether it be the unbelievably cool Winston Wolf or the pragmatic Mr. White. His character here is similarly enigmatic--he is just "the lieutenant," and we know very little about him outside of his job or his immoral pursuits. As he is somewhat anonymous, he serves as the prototypical everyman; really, "Bad Lieutenant" could easily be a condemnation of corrupt authority figures, but it doesn't play as one. Ferrara isn't interested in that, so he delivers something that's more akin to a medieval morality play that's concerned with how justice, corruption, and even forgiveness intertwine.
And like all of those morality plays, tragedy is eventually at the center. The lieutenant doesn't just make a deal with the devil--he makes several deals, and by the time he finds himself prostrated on a church floor begging forgiveness from a hallucinated Christ, the damage has been done. His final act in the film is interesting and ambiguous in that viewers can either see him as a still-misguided soul or a redemptive, almost Christ-like figure himself. Either way, Keitel's infantile cries as he grasps and accepts his fate are unsettling and haunting.
In fact, "Bad Lieutenant" is quite haunting as a whole. Given its NC-17 rating and Ferrara's reputation, I expected it to affect me on a visceral level. However, it plunged into some truly troubling depths of a man's soul and had a lot to say about atonement and grace, and did so with a measured calmness. Not much about this film is loudly obscene; instead, it's sort of quietly lewd, delivered by an unblinking, deterministic lens that dares you to look away as a man rots away.Like a more deranged B-side to "Taxi Driver," "Bad Lieutenant" is Ferrara channeling Scorsese and unexpectedly succeeding quite well.
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originally posted: 11/04/11 23:16:38