They Don’t Call Him Bad for Nothing.
For the handful of asylum dwellers and family members who have read all the articles I’ve done in the past year, and by my count there’s at least two of each, you might have noticed that I have referenced the film Bad Lieutenant quite a few times. Sometimes it was just a picture, other times it was the threat of a review the next week. A little over a month ago the girlfriend told me I should actually review Bad Lieutenant for my one year anniversary article. After very little deliberation, I agreed that it was a good idea, as long as she watched it with me.
I was first assaulted by Bad Lieutenant when I was fifteen. The film was quite infamous at the time for being one of the only films to be released with an NC-17 rating. Most of the reason for this was due to a scene of full-frontal nudity by the film’s star Harvey Keitel, but it also might have had something to do with scenes of massive drug use, a nun rape, and one of the most out there scenes of public masturbation this side of a David Cronenberg/David Lynch collaboration. But we’ll get to all of that soon enough.
Whenever people would bring up “messed up” movies, such as Requiem for a Dream or Spun, I would always bring up Bad Lieutenant and get blank stares. It is a movie that, after the initial shock had worn off, more or less fell to the wayside of most people’s movie memories. Even the strange 2009 non-sequel called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicolas Cage (an indelible slice of crazy in and of itself), failed to do much to raise the originals profile. So here I am to let you in on a secret; Bad Lieutenant is one of the weirdest, grimiest movies you will ever watch, and it’s also pretty damn good to boot.
Keitel plays the unnamed NYPD lieutenant as a ticking time-bomb. He snorts, smokes, and shoots any drug he can get his hands on, he has strange sex parties (?) with unnamed prostitutes/junkies, he has a terrible gambling problem, and he’s also responsible for several children as well. All of this plays out while the lieutenant is helping out in the investigation of the rape of a nun.
The plot is almost inconsequential to the ebb and flow of the movie. Writers Zoe Lund (who also co-stars) and Abel Ferrara (who also directed), seem to be more interested in the details of the lieutenants various addictions than in a detailed plot. This is probably due to the fact that Lund and Ferrara were both drug addicts themselves during the making of the film. The movie has a certain authenticity to it, particularly in the grime, and this is probably due to the first hand experiences that informed them.
The most infamous scene in the movie, aside from Keitel’s sad naked dance ten minutes in, is one that involves the lieutenant pulling over two young girls (Eddie Daniels and Bianca Hunter) on the way back to New Jersey from a night of clubbing. When the girls tell the lieutenant that neither of them have a driver’s license, he proceeds to make a deal with them. This deal involves the passenger showing the lieutenant her ass, while the driver mimes performing oral sex. While this is going on the lieutenant is masturbating vigorously while saying things such as “oh yeah, you suck that dick” in a voice that would creep most porn stars out. After around a minute of this, the lieutenant finishes up and walks off without a word. As if the scene isn’t disturbing enough, it’s hard to know how badly the girls will be scarred by the fact that, to the lieutenant, they weren’t even worth saying goodbye to. Now that’s a bad lieutenant.
As the film progresses, the lieutenant doesn’t so much begin a downward spiral as he just continues on the collision course he’s already on; there is no bottom to hit because he’s already there. There’s only one way out for the lieutenant and he knows it. Either the drugs or the bookies, to whom he owes upwards of 120,000 dollars, are going to catch up with him.
The lieutenant does seem to be seeking some form of redemption by the end of the film. He has a hallucination in which he curses at Jesus, but eventually asks for help and forgiveness. The hallucination of Jesus turns into a woman who tells the lieutenant that the rapists pawned a chalice they took from the church at her pawn shop. The lieutenant tracks the rapists down, handcuffs them, shares crack with them, and then takes them to the bus station. He buys them tickets and forces them to leave town. This seems to be him seeking forgiveness and absolution by, hopefully, saving two wayward souls.
Bad Lieutenant is not a movie for the squeamish; it immerses itself in violence, sex, and drugs, and offers no easy answers. Like all good movies dealing with these themes, it doesn’t glamorize the lifestyle, nor does it offer harsh judgment or an obvious way out. It seems to say that redemption is necessary, but that redemption might not be what we want it to be, but what it has to be. The lieutenant doesn’t find a happy ending, but maybe he doesn’t deserve one. Redemption and happiness are not mutually exclusive, nor does one necessarily lead to the other; a person is generally still held responsible for their actions be it from family, friends, or in the case of the bad lieutenant, shady loan sharks and bookies. Perhaps a happy ending was impossible for the lieutenant due to his previous sins, but maybe, just maybe, in death he will find the absolution he seeks.
Harvey Keitel is incredible in Bad Lieutenant. This, along with Taxi Driver and Reservoir Dogs, are my favorite performances of his. To say that he carries the movie is an understatement; he is the movie. Without an actor of his stature and caliber it would never work. It is a fearless performance that deserves to be more noted than it currently is.
Abel Ferrara’s direction is the other star of the film. The movie has a very documentary feel that comes down to Ferrara and the cinematography of Ken Kelsch. The grime and desperation of the lieutenant’s world comes through in every frame, and that is not by accident. Zoe Lund’s contribution should not be taken for granted either. She not only co-wrote the script, but she also acts as one of the lieutenant’s drug hook-ups/girlfriend. The fact that Lund died in 1997 of complications from drug addiction makes her performance and her drug use in the movie, all the more harrowing.
Bad Lieutenant earns its NC-17 rating. I watched it when I was fifteen and got through it with no problems, but it made an indelible impression on me. I certainly wouldn’t suggest it to most fifteen year olds or most people in general, but if you, like me, enjoy harrowing cinematic journeys into the underbelly of America, then Bad Lieutenant might be a movie for you. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you, alright?
Until next time…