Mercy and forgiveness can be profoundly absurd things, and Bad Lieutenant, Abel Ferrara’s controversial and relentlessly gritty 1992 neo-noir thriller, grapples with that absurdity in an unflinching, visceral way. Following the exploits of an unnamed Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), Ferrara plunges into the depths of depravity, as we see the crooked cop gambling, stealing, getting high, sexually harassing young women, and abusing his suspects. An addict in every sense of the word, he increasingly struggles to keep his head above water amidst various benders, visits to sex workers, and mounting debts, cutting deals with drug pushers to line his pockets, as well as to keep the debt collectors at bay. But when the lawman learns of a nun who has been raped by two young men, it puts the lapsed Catholic on a path that will either bring him redemption, or destroy him completely.
Bad Lieutenant‘s frank depictions of sexuality — including scenes of sexual violence — and drug abuse shocked audiences and critics in 1992, and 30 years on, it retains every bit of its repelling filthiness. Ferrara’s unflinching, hyper-grimy tale brings its audience close to the worst that humanity has to offer. Far from being a lurid plot motor, however, the sexual assault the nun goes through becomes a central piece of the film’s allegory. Suffering, redemption, and addiction are common themes in Ferrara’s work — often bluntly so, his 1995 vampire drama carrying the apt title The Addiction — but with Bad Lieutenant, the legendary New York director, who made his name with underground classics like The Driller Killer and Ms .45, elevates his grim story of police corruption and urban violence to biblical proportions. When Keitel’s Lieutenant learns that the nun refuses to identify her attackers to the police, he slowly becomes obsessed, even listening in on her confessions, where she explains her reasons for not giving the “sad, raging boys” up, despite knowing who they are. “They came to me as the needy do,” she says. “And like many of the needy, they were rude. Like all the needy, they took . . . They did not love me, but I ought to have loved them.”
She tells the Lieutenant that she has forgiven her rapists and he, at first, seems convinced that she has lost her mind, but her radical act eventually makes him look within himself, forcing him to acknowledge all the sins that he has committed. Breaking down in the church — a massive cocaine- and heroin-fueled bender barely in the rearview — he is visited by an eerie apparition of Jesus Christ (Paul Hipp), and finally collapses under the weight of his anguish, a lifetime of anger and self-loathing spewing out in what ranks amongst the most powerful scenes ever put to film. Keitel’s agonized howls reverberate through the house of prayer as he goes from insulting Christ, notoriously describing him as a “rat fuck,” to tearfully admitting that he can’t find his way out of the darkness alone. For all the deviant behavior we bear witness to, the concept of forgiveness remains the film’s most powerful force, pulling even its most wretched characters into the light of divine mercy.
Kicking, stumbling, and yelling all the way, the Lieutenant ultimately opts for his own act of forgiveness, realizing his misdeeds aren’t so far removed from those of the two hoodlums he had sought to take revenge on. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky wrote, “For no one can judge a criminal until he recognizes that he is just such a criminal as the man standing before him,” and for anyone familiar with the Russian novelist’s works, these words will likely loom large over the film’s final scenes. His act of mercy behind him, The Lieutenant grimaces and lets out a stifled moan, knowing that his past sins will, in all likelihood, catch up with him sooner than later.
Bad Lieutenant is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of Ferrara’s grindhouse-via-arthouse sensibility, and as usual, his work proves immensely rewarding to anyone willing to gaze beyond its sleazy surface. The director would eventually begin setting his drama against a larger scale, with films like 4:44 Last Day on Earth exploring the fall of man in a more cosmic sense, but his ’92 classic will likely remain his, and perhaps even the, definitive film about how grace remains in reach for even the most wicked and deranged among us.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.