Bad Lieutenant, set in a particularly grimy-looking New York, lugs around enough Catholic-guilt, crooked cops, cocaine snorting and a somewhat-conscious Harvey Keitel to remind us of the great crime dramas Martin Scorsese made back in the ’70s. Bad Lieutenant is not directed by Martin Scorsese but Abel Ferrara, a fellow New Yorker. While Ferrara’s film may lack Scorsese’s rhythm and likeability, he brings impulsive beats and a narrative flow that feels so wild and impetuous I’m almost convinced Ferrara was just as coked out as his titular lieutenant during the filming process (which he openly admits). But all jokes aside, Bad Lieutenant (which was, not surprisingly, chosen by Scorsese as his fifth favorite film of the ’90s) is an indisputable feat of directorial control and vision, and perhaps the greatest depiction of inner-city repentance since Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973).
There are thousands of churches in New York City. Wooden crosses, Gothic spires and stained glass can be seen on almost every street corner, watching over the streets like the city’s moral judge. For the lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), the symbols of Catholicism represent a reflective conscience, an almost inescapable reminder of his sins and transgressions—the deeper trouble he finds himself in, the more tangible these symbols become. As a high ranker in the police department, the hedonistic lieutenant wanders the streets of the Bronx as practically his own boss, reacting to crime and mischief with his own brand of law and order. His power as law enforcement allows him, ironically, to live above the law. It’s this type of freedom that feeds into his drugged-out escapades with prostitutes and risky gambles with high-end criminals. Bad Lieutenant is replete with ironies, one of them being that the freedom the lieutenant possesses starts to resemble an internalized prison where he wastes away in self-loathing. Soon it’ll become an inexhaustible fund for his self-destruction.
Harvey Keitel plays the lieutenant, a corrupt, foul-mouthed and temperamental man. When he isn’t whore-mongering and manipulating the law, he lulls himself into spells of coked out ecstasy. Keitel is particularly dextrous, his half-comic and half-melancholic approach gives the character an impassioned pathos of desperation. The film looks down at his despair with a kind of omniscient retribution (we as the audience are the film’s only moral arbiters), but it also sympathizes with his flaws on a human level. The word “brave” has been synonymous with most of the critical praise surrounding Harvey Keitel’s performance, and for good reason. Kietel isn’t afraid to bare all (in more ways than one) and sink to scummy depths most people can’t imagine (or refuse to), the result of which is grim but surprisingly unpornographic. Keitel and Ferrara both made Bad Lieutenant to be pungently expressive and lyrically untamed, a sort of filmic confessional. The two collaborate to investigate the human body’s needs and desires, and the price for ignoring one to indulge the other.
The story of the lieutenant is briefly but importantly intercut with the tragedy of a nun, who is raped inside a church by two local hoodlums—the moment it happens is shocking, but it’s neither underhanded nor exploitative. It happens in fast cutaways, the images are just vivid enough to get the point across, but the strategic side-by-side of that moment with the lieutenant engaging in a three-way creates a dual interplay of profound sin. Editing the two scenes into an Eisenstein-like montage, the images of the philandering lieutenant’s casual sexual encounter with two women and the nun’s two-man sexual assault becomes a striking visual motif; the images of naked bodies being ravaged and whored, amidst desecrated church symbols, tells us that the lieutenant is destroying his body and his soul.
Bad Lieutenant plays on the Catholic virtue of forgiveness, or the idea that any person’s soul can be redeemed (no matter how terrible his/her crimes). The nun forgives her attackers, to the bafflement of the lieutenant. “Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake,” he warns. The occasion becomes something of a revelation for the lieutenant and an encounter with the two rapists by the film’s end becomes an uncomfortably hilarious moment of reverential self-projection. Ultimately, he sees too much of himself in the rapists (“And she forgives you. Ya hear that? She forgives you.”). The lieutenant is Catholic, but after years of self-harm (and the harm he’s inflicted onto others) even he finds the idea of forgiveness absurd.
All of his crimes and internalization culminates to a climactic sequence where the lieutenant is confronted by a very literal Jesus Christ (this incarnation looks fresh and bloodied off the cross). The film’s hallucinogenic vocabulary probably only suggests that the lieutenant is actually just staring at an illusion formed by his frenzied (and drugged-out) desire for repentance. Between Kietel’s wails—which are pleading and childlike—the rambled words coming from his mouth first sound like garbled nonsense, consisting mostly of blunt swearwords and improvisation (“You fuck, you ratfuck!”). But upon further introspection, the manic expressiveness of his words, despite their simplicity, provide a chilling dramatic subtext to his suffering (“You fuck, you fucking stand there and you want me to do every fucking thing! Where were you? Where the fuck are you?”).
Whether it’s how the camera drunkenly wobbles following Keitel through the streets of the Bronx or how it euphorically gazes at how a needle penetrates his forearm, you’ll probably get the unnerving feeling you’re being subconsciously invited into the lieutenant’s drugged-out odyssey. As Bad Lieutenant becomes more aware of itself (sinking deeper into the lieutenant’s emotions), the film becomes less unapologetic and more dutiful in its unpleasantness. It offers us the slice of life most people don’t want to bite into, lest they find themselves sympathizing with the kind of people society reflexively shuns. It’s crucial that we’re reminded that people like the lieutenant exist, not to understand the morbid specifics of his drug use or promiscuity, but rather to understand how “normal society” and its ugly underbelly are only two sides of the same coin.