Harvey Keitel doesn’t really have a name in “Bad Lieutenant,” and that’s a tip-off that we’re meant to be witnessing something archetypal. We just know him as the Lieutenant. He’s a sufferer not only for his own sins but for ours--a scuzzball Everyman aching for redemption.
The overarching pretentions of “Bad Lieutenant” (Nuart) are reminiscent of moody-blue French policiers but with a much grungier overlay. It’s a film enthralled by its own lower depths. Director Abel Ferrara has such a muscular sense of rot that, for long stretches of the film, we’re as transfixed by New York’s fire-and-brimstone underside as Keitel’s coked-out cop. We’re not merely meant to identify with his suffering; we’re meant to see through his increasingly bleary eyes.
The Lieutenant seeks his salvation in the course of investigating a horrendous crime. A nun (Frankie Thorn) has been brutally raped in a church in Spanish Harlem; she won’t give the police any information about the identity of the rapists because she says she has already forgiven them. For the Lieutenant, a lapsed Catholic who still attends church with his unsuspecting suburban family, this nun’s act is so stupefyingly angelic that it subverts his entire rotten life. In the process of self-destructing, he works his way to a similar act of forgiveness.
Ferrara, working from a script he co-wrote with Zoe Lund, pours on the horrors. This NC-17 movie has just about every imaginable vice in it, and Ferrara doesn’t flinch at showing us anything: drug usage, sexual battery, carnage. This is the most Scorsese-like of Ferrara’s films, specifically “Taxi Driver,” which also used Manhattan’s lower depths as a road map of hell. But Ferrara is more out-of-control than Scorsese was in that film; he’s far too impressed with his own sense of religious violation. Although “Bad Lieutenant” is structured as a redemptive thriller, it functions primarily as a freak show with religioso overtones. It works up a blasphemous charge and then tries to moralize its meanings. It’s a form of sugarcoating, although the coating is none too sweet.
Still, Ferrara and Lund connect with the bone-chilling scariness of the addict’s world, and the film is never less than compelling. Keitel’s performance is marred by the role’s lack of definition; without much in the way of background, the Lieutenant resembles a blobby sacrificial lamb grazing through the slaughter house. But Keitel’s slight opaqueness as an actor works in his favor here; his mask of misery has an emblematic quality. He keeps us watching his descent without wanting to look away. Only an actor with tremendous reserves of power could accomplish that.
Harvey Keitel: Lieutenant
Frankie Thorn: Nun
Zoe Lund: Zoe
Victor Argo: Bet Cop
An Edward R. Pressman production, released by Aries Film Releasing. Director Abel Ferrara. Producer Edward R. Pressman and Mary Kane. Executive producers Ronna B. Wallace and Patrick Wachsberger. Screenplay by Zoe Lund and Abel Ferrara. Cinematographer Ken Kelsch. Editor Anthony Redman. Costumes David Sawaryn. Music Joe Delia. Production design Charles Lagola. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes.
MPAA-rated NC-17 (contains explicit sex, violence, language, drug usage).