The title of Abel Ferrara’s great Bad Lieutenant gives away its opening joke, but the joke gets a laugh anyway. A man in a dark suit (Harvey Keitel) — the script never names him — drives his two little boys to school. On the way, the kids complain that their aunt hogged the bathroom. “Next time, you come tell me,” says this upstanding father, “and I’ll throw her the fuck out.” He drops the kids off, waits for them to get out of range, then puts a couple of lines of coke up his nose. He drives on, stopping at the scene of a crime. What business does he have here? He steps out of the car and … pins a badge to his chest. Jesus, this guy’s a cop? That’s the joke, but in Abel Ferrara territory, it’s also reality.
Ferrara, a cult director (Driller Killer, Ms. 45, Fear City, King of New York) with the most twisted Catholic sensibility this side of Scorsese, has always hopped between art and exploitation, usually loitering long enough on the exploitation side to disqualify his films from serious discussion. With Bad Lieutenant, he hops so hard and fast he leaves deep footprints on both sides. Yet this stark tale of damnation and redemption, for all its lurid and freakish aspects, is as serious as they come. Its reputation and NC-17 rating preceded it, as if it were a violent version of Madonna’s Sex (the rating is presumably due to a rape scene, full-frontal male nudity, and a notorious sequence I’ll get to shortly), but it provides no cheesy thrills, no empty catharsis. Far from being a dirty Miami Vice, it’s one of the few truly challenging and morally complex movies about salvation.
Keitel the bad lieutenant shambles through the slums of New York, scoring crack, sticking his dick into anything that moves, making progressively stupid bets on the Dodgers, and pocketing the money he confiscates from burglars. We get the point: He’s in hell, and not just the Scorsesean hell of New York. Elsewhere in the city, two punks brutally rape a nun in the sanctity of her church, at one point violating her with a crucifix. Though the nun (Frankie Thorn) knows her attackers, she refuses to name them — having already forgiven them. This case doesn’t especially interest Keitel at first (“Women get raped all the time; what’s the difference if they’re wearing penguin suits?”), but the nun’s purity, faith, and capacity for love haunt him. Her spiritual perfection throws a painful light on his own sinfulness. “I’m blessed,” he jokes. “I’m a fuckin’ Catholic.” Now he has to prove it — even if his redemption may also spell his doom.
Much of Bad Lieutenant is poky and minimalist. Ferrara’s camera stares at Keitel shooting up or dragging his ass off the couch after a typical night, and the scenes are prolonged for their own deadpan-voyeuristic sake. The movie isn’t the slam-bang shockfest some reviews would have you believe it is; most of the action, in fact, is eerie and hushed. The stand-out sequence, which nobody who sees it will soon forget, has Keitel commanding two New Jersey girls to do lewd things (“Show me how you suck a guy’s cock”) while he masturbates outside their car. Ferrara shoots the scene casually, with no visual or dramatic emphasis, as if the lieutenant did this every night. (He probably does something like it every night.) The scene goes on and on in the cold drizzle, and when it’s over, the way Keitel abruptly walks away — as if the Devil had left his body along with his semen, and as if he were now too humiliated to do anything but leave — is comedy at its weirdest. Bad Lieutenant does shock, but not in the usual ways. Ferrara and cowriter Zoë Lund (who starred in Ms. 45 and appears here as a junkie) don’t tell you how to feel about their sinner. Because the movie is so neutral about every sordid thing it shows us, it disarms easy moral judgment and packs a greater wallop.
The film probably wouldn’t work without Keitel, who gives one of the all-time ballsy performances. Picture his tormented Charlie from Scorsese’s Mean Streets twenty years later, if Charlie had decided to renounce the mob life and become a cop. Keitel goes all the way into degradation and shame without really going over the top, but he also does some things (mewling while wandering around naked, stoned out of his mind; howling out a profane confession to Christ) not many other actors could pull off without looking ridiculous. Keitel risks looking ridiculous, but because he commits himself so intensely and seems to understand the lieutenant from the inside out, we accept his flailings as a sort of abstract journey through fear and loathing. His bad lieutenant has a specific movie ancestor — Jack Nicholson’s border cop in the little-seen The Border, a man so demoralized he was desperate to do one tiny good deed that might redeem him and his corrupt world. Keitel (a costar in The Border) plays the lieutenant as an annihilated soul burning in his own sin. He, too, finds himself compelled to perform a small kindness. But the world isn’t obligated to repay him, and Ferrara seals the film with a long-shot image of sudden violence and desolation.
I find it amazing, thinking back on Bad Lieutenant, how skillfully Ferrara demolishes the audience’s expectations. It’s customary in movies that a redeemed scoundrel reaps the benefits of his conversion (it’s the basic Scrooge template); in this film, redemption doesn’t guarantee you anything. The most you can expect is to make peace with your soul and God before everything turns to shit. There’s really no doubt where the lieutenant’s soul is headed, but it can’t be much worse than the hell he’s in now. The assumption is that if you can’t get into heaven, you trade one hell for another and hope it’s better. Bad Lieutenant is a true rarity: a profane and unblinking tragedy about faith.