Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a shocking, confronting, and highly controversial hard hitting drama.
It stars Harvey Keitel as a New York City Police Lieutenant who is corrupted in every which way. He is a hard drug user who abuses crack and heroin and snorts cocaine at any given opportunity. He steals narcotics from crime scenes and sells it on the street for profit. He is a family man who bangs hookers two at a time. And he is quickly mounting an overwhelming debt based on bets lost on the World Series between the New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He is a man lost to the world. However, when the brutal rape of a Nun irks his Catholic guilt, he treads down a path of redemption after she forgives her attackers.
Ferrara is a no holds barred filmmaker, and he provides some shocking imagery which can make this film extremely distressing to watch.
The highlight and strength of Bad Lieutenant is found in Keitel, who gives an extremely brave and powerful performance. High profile actors hardly ever put themselves out their like Keitel has in this film. He lets it all hang out (literally in one scene!)
Two keys scenes of graphic nature feature Keitel’s cop in various forms of madness. The first has him at his most depraved, when he pulls over two teenage girls who were driving with a broken tail light and no licence, and degrades them in a shocking abuse of authority. The other scene has his character at his most vulnerable, when he breaks down in a Catholic church and confronts Jesus Christ who appears in the flesh.
There are many other scenes that follow this template, yet some are marred by the poor decisions of cinematographer Ken Kelsch,(The Funeral) whose choice of lighting in key scenes – especially the setting of a rape scene where the neon lit look comes off as a perverted porno film – goes against the gritty tone of the film.
The combination of Keitel, New York City, and Catholic redemption reminds of Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. Yet Bad Lieutenant is much more disturbing and in your face, and successfully portrays the destruction of the soul.