Bad Lieutenant - Abel Ferrara (1996)
I’m always interested as to why crime and violence works so well on screen.
What is it about cinema that allows us to entertain situations that would otherwise be traumatic or horrifying? What is it about the audience that entertains this flirtation with danger? How safe are our lines of reality when it comes to enjoying violence on screen?
Of course, there are some films that like to test their audiences. Some directors revel in flicking the microscope lenses until the line between entertainment and repulsion get uncomfortably close. Sometimes close enough to actually make you feel sick.
David Thewlis in Naked has this effect on me, as does Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, and to a lesser extent Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. At times, these detestable characters are played uncomfortably close to the bone.
Another performance, just as gripping and nauseating as these is that of Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. A character study of corruption and abuse in the New York police force channelled through one irrefutably Bad lieutenant. I watched it for the first time a few months back and it’s brilliant.
The Lieutenant is a different kind of bad than we’re used to seeing. He’s not leather-clad lock-your-daughters-up bad, or b-b-b-bad to the bone. Nor is he antithetically bad like Darth Vader, or The Joker, or even Ben Kingsley’s Don Logan, no, no, no, no, no. Unlike these evil characters, who are often counterpoint to the good in stories, there is not a lot of good to the Bad Lieutenant.
This is not a nice film, let's not have any ambiguity about that. I'm not even necessarily saying watch this film. Don't get me wrong, it’s fantastic and I can't recommend it enough, but I can't necessarily assure you'll enjoy it. This film will make your mind race and your stomach churn but if you are willing, it is wholly worth taking in.
Ferrara takes us on an intimate journey, showing us a dark and loveless existence of a man who is hopelessly self-loathing in his navigation of seedy Bronx neighbourhoods. Following the Lieutenant’s destructive habits we are show the worst his world has to offer; snorting cocaine to get through the school run, chasing bets to make up for lost money, abusing his power to steal from thieves, violating young women and consuming enough alcohol just to level out his high and continue what appears to be a sure path to a swift demise.
The Lieutenant exists like he has a gravitational pull of repugnance. He is destructive and hateful, but he is bad in a world that is even bleaker and for all his sins even he has a moral line. A nun is raped, and after hitting rock bottom the Lieutenant seeks her out to tell her he will seek justice. When he is stunned by the nun’s display of mercy for her attacker, he becomes overwhelmed with emotion and is forced to confront his demons. Hallucinating god in a church he breaks down and starts to wonder if there is redemption yet for his own sins. He seeks out the nun’s perpetrators and takes it on his own shoulders to decide their fates.
As well as showing us the most abhorrent characters, Ferrara’s film also sheds a light on the inherent goodness that lies in all of us. It may operate in the darkest recesses of crime ridden New York, but this film is entirely reflective on morality and deeply spiritual in its narrative rhetoric.
Keitel’s performance is unmistakably brilliant. It’s visceral and real and cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. To his huge credit, Keitel’s performance exceeds most character studies. There aren’t many actors who would willingly explore this side to their psyche and go to such dark places to perform a role.
Ferrara certainly digs deep into the reality of criminal activities to pull this one off, but it is really Keitel’s performance that transforms the story. He is raw and at times awful to watch but he is the driving factor in the redemptive power of the Bad Lieutenant.