Screenplay : Abel Ferrara and Zoe Tamerlis
MPAA Rating : NC-17
Year of Release : 1992
Stars : Harvey Keitel (Lieutenant), Frankie Thorn (Nun), Eddie Daniels (Jersey Girl - Passenger), Bianca Bakija (Jersey Girl - Driver)
When I think back on watching this film, two thoughts immediately cross my mind. First, it was a terribly unpleasant experience, and secondly, it was a brilliant.
Those two thoughts, while sounding a bit contradictory at first, are intricately related. How could film depict this kind of subject matter without being unsettling? The real victory in "Bad Lieutenant" is how it is so horrifying without once seeming contrived or sensational. Other films have dealt with subjects just as harsh, but few have reached this level of reality. So, the question posed by this film isn't whether or not it is well-made, but rather, should it have been made at all?
This is where critics will stand divided. I don't think you can find any who won't admit that Harvey Keitel's performance in the title role as the unnamed Lieutenant isn't one of the best of his career. And no one will say that director Abel Ferrara failed to create a complex, well-structured film that thoroughly traces the embittered pain of a haunted man.
The film revolves around the Lieutenant, who is much worse than the title suggests. He appears to have a family, but he pays them little to no attention. He is a lax Catholic who gambles compulsively, takes from drug dealers, shoots up with heroin, participates in orgies, steals money, and even sexually harasses teenage girls. Yet, he is a lieutenant in the police department, sworn to uphold the law and protect the citizens. The obvious contradiction works in showing how there are many faces of evil that can reside in many places.
The narrative force of the story comes from a case the Lieutenant is investigating. Two young men attack a nun in the church, brutally beating and raping her on the altar. This scene in particular has appalled many because it was filmed in such intense, graphic detail. However, this was not for pure shock effect as some have conceded, but rather it was intended to demonstrate that there are levels of evil that even the Lieutenant won't sink to.
This case becomes the focal point of the film, and the dividing line for the Lieutenant and his future. He feels torn, because even he cannot fathom what these two boys have done, and his nature won't allow him to understand how the nun can find it in herself to forgive them. While he pays little attention to most of his work, he pursues this case doggedly, and one wonders if finding the assailants is not so much for the nun's sake as for his own.
The most powerful scene in the film comes near the end where the Lieutenant has a vision that he sees Christ standing before him in the church. But, instead of bowing in reverence, he hurls insults and blasphemies, crying in anguish and asking where was God when all these terrible things were happening? But then, the Lieutenant breaks, realizing that he is just as much a part of the world's evil as anyone else, and he begins crying to be forgiven, a modern version of Christ's parable about the thief on the street corner tearing his clothes and beating his breast, begging God's forgiveness. The scene is played with only two cameras and no noise save Keitel's pained voice, and the impact is astonishing.
Although it sounds like that scene is out of place in this movie, it's not. It fits perfectly with the themes of sin and forgiveness. Some may view "Bad Lieutenant" as nihilistic, but I would argue against that point of view. It is a deeply felt portrayal of a man at war with himself, and how redemption is possible for even the worst sinners. Nothing could be less nihilistic than that.
©1997 James Kendrick