It is safe to say that I am not a fan of Abel Ferrara’s work for the most part. While I loved his direction on the pilot for the television series Crime Story, Body Snatchers (1993), his remake for the 1950s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was mediocre at best, while King of New York (1990), along with many of his other crime films, were ultra violent attempts at mimicking Martin Scorsese’s early works.
So consider me surprised to find that I am not only impressed by his 1992 effort Bad Lieutenant, but I am willing to go as far as to say that Ferrara has made a legitimately great film. Moreover, Bad Lieutenant is a film that demonstrates a thoughtful and mature exploration of Christian faith and man’s relationship with God, regardless of where one stands on the spectrum of thought regarding God, faith and religion.
Bad Lieutenant tells the tale of a nameless New York Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), who is just about as corrupt as they come: he is a heroine addict, a gambling addict, and and adulterer who is prone to violence and extortion when it comes to the people he meets on the job. As the Lieutenant’s life slowly unravels, his bets on a series of baseball games place him in the hole and his drug addictions grow more uncontrollable, he is presented with a shockingly brutal case. A young nun, during a break in at a church, is raped. While initially cynical and dismissive as to the horror of the event, the Lieutenant is shocked when the nun not only reveals she knows her attackers, but forgives them and refuses to give up their names. As his life falls apart, the case becomes a quest for the Lieutenant to understand the choice of the nun, and possibly find redemption for himself.
Bad Lieutenant is a film that is likely to offend viewers across the board. Conservative, religious audiences will likely be turned off by the extreme and volatile character at the center of the film, a character that we follow into the darkest of corners when it comes to his personal failings and vices. Non-religious viewers may very well be turned off by the film’s focus on spirituality and faith. Still others will likely be put off by the fact that the film is not a thriller or mystery, but a character study with little in the way of a traditional plot. All three possible rejections of the film would be a shame, as the film’s complex exploration of the possibility for personal redemption is rich and textured, asking the viewer to really engage with the issue both emotionally and intellectually.
The Lieutenant of the title is not merely a misguided individual, but a truly vile human being: a wretched father, a lousy husband, and a sickeningly horrific police officer who abuses his powers daily. The Lieutenant is the embodiment of every character an audience has ever been asked to root against. His initial reaction to the crime against the nun not only invites disgust from the audience, but elicits shock from some of his fellow officers. He cannot even fall back on the claim of being any good at his job, as the time he spends on his vices leaves little time to accomplish any form of crime fighting. About the only thing he cares about is baseball, where he seems to invest himself both financially and spiritually. By all definitions, he is an irredeemable monster, and there is no reason for us to give a damn about a monster, except for the fact that society has invested this one with power.
Oddly enough however, we do give a damn about this monster. All credit must be given to Ferrara and Keitel, because they somehow manage to find the humanity in this abomination of a character. The nameless Lieutenant is less a character than a walking, talking collection of anger, frustration, self pity and hatred, aimed at anyone and everyone. In lacking a name or much in the way of a defined existence outside of his job, Ferrara allows the viewer to project onto the character, and identify the traces of our own personal dark side within his behaviour. Keitel manages to give the best performance of his career here, portraying a man so convinced in his understanding of the world that the actions of the nun totally shatter his very core.
What differentiates this redemption narrative from others is that the redemption for the title character is of secondary importance. While certainly the Lieutenant’s own redemption comes into play, what he seeks most is to understand the choice of the nun, an understanding also sought by the audience. This search for answers, to seek to understand another point of view of life free of or base traits, ironically further unifies the viewer and the Lieutenant, connecting his attitude towards life and bad behaviour as being typical of part of our everyday lives.
It is debatable whether or not the Lieutenant is able to comprehend the answers to his and the viewers’ questions, and unlikely that all viewers will be open to accepting these answers, but the Lieutenant’s quest for knowledge leaves him by the final third of the film fully stripped of agency, belaying any power he might have over his life. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Whatever redemption the Lieutenant finds by the conclusion of the film has little to seemingly do with his own will, Ferrara and Keitel magnificently establish this redemption as one in which the character has been kicked dragging and screaming from his typical patterns of behaviour. Keitel’s performance is at its best here, as he makes a decision he clearly is tormented by, yet clearly feels he needs to do. His reconnection with humanity has left him broken and in pain, toying with the viewers’ emotions as to how to interpret the conclusion of the film. (SPOILERS OVER).
Ferrara wisely attempts to place the viewer squarely into the subjective point of view of the Lieutenant, following the character as he makes his journey from home to the streets, clubs and grimy apartments of criminals, drug dealers and prostitutes. As the Lieutenant deteriorates, so does the stability of the camera, and the end results helps to add to the grimy world from which escape is seemingly impossible, at least for the Lieutenant.
The deployment of music is also highly notable in the film, mainly for how little music is actually featured in the film. Ferrara doesn’t bother to often highlight scenes with non-diagetic music, instead allowing for the harsh collection of voices and city noise to carry entire scenes, adding a heightened tension to the film, as we lack an audio cue to help navigate just where scenes will head.
Bad Lieutenant will not be for all tastes, but it was not made to be. It is a film which relentlessly tells its tale the way it needs to be told, the audience’s reaction be damned. As such, the film is unquestionably art, and needs to be accepted on that level, along with the work that a viewer must do to understand art. Those seeking easy answers or sheer entertainment, look elsewhere.