Since attracting the wrath of the BBFC with his debut feature Driller Killer, Abel Ferrara has carved out a niche as one of the most difficult and uncompromising filmmakers of our time. His forthright personality off-screen is matched only by the hard-talking, macho nature of his films, which range from the gruesome rape revenge thriller Ms. 45 to the poignant but swaggering China Girl. In Bad Lieutenant, arguably his most audacious work, he gives us a film about guilt, redemption and unbearable human suffering, constructed around one of the greatest performances of the 1990s.
Bad Lieutenant is a slow-burning, often thoughtful character study scripted by Zoe Lund, a model-turned-actress who starred in Ms. 45. It follows the tortured lifestyle of an unnamed New York police lieutenant who is deeply in debt to the mob through bets made on a baseball series. On top of his gambling addiction he is also a cocaine and heroin addict, who steals drugs from crime scenes to sell on the street so he can fund his other habit, namely women. In the midst of all this, somehow being able to keep his job, he is assigned to track down two men who have brutally raped a young nun, played by Frankie Thorn.
For this kind of character to be believable, you need an actor with weight, experience and a threatening screen presence - and no-one meets those criteria better than Harvey Keitel. After a relatively quiet 1980s, Keitel was experiencing a revival with critical plaudits for his work on Thelma and Louise and Bugsy, the latter of which brought him his first (and so far only) Oscar nomination. Around the same time he played Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs, a role popularly perceived as his comeback. But out of the two this is the more remarkable performance, which makes any talk of a 'comeback' seem like damning with faint praise.
Keitel's performance in Bad Lieutenant is one of the best of his career, up there with his early work on Mean Streets or The Duellists. He truly and painfully inhabits the nameless Lieutenant, giving a performance of such raw, unmitigated honesty that we empathise with him even in his most unspeakable moments. We genuinely feel the torture of the lieutenant as he descends further and further into hell on the streets of New York, faced with both his growing personal problems and a case which is impossible to solve. It's a performance of blood, sweat, tears and God knows what else, and the result is both frightening and heartbreaking.
In terms of Keitel's back catalogue, the film to which Bad Lieutenant is closest is Taxi Driver. Martin Scorsese has almost admitted this comparison, including Bad Lieutenant on his list of Greatest Films of the 1990s. Both Travis Bickle and the Bad Lieutenant are driven, obsessive loners, who inhabit a world which is drowning in corruption and sin, and whose motivation comes from a desire to fight against the all-engulfing tide. But where Travis is positioned as God's lonely man, the Lieutenant has one foot firmly in hell and only gains complete moral conviction in the final stages of the film.
Bad Lieutenant is at heart a story of Catholic redemption. Keitel is haunted by the mistakes he has made in the past, and his regrets are tempered by an admittance that it is all his fault. His bets with the mob's bookie become increasingly absurd, so that during the scene in the club the broker advises Keitel that it would be cheaper and easier just to have him killed. The Lieutenant's many years on the streets have made him incapable of forgiving people or understand the grace or mercy of God. When his nieces receive their first communion, he watches from a distance, unable to connect with either the service or the beliefs it upholds.
There are a number of deeply striking sequences in Bad Lieutenant which convey the seemingly impossible prospect of redemption in the midst of all the horror unfolding on screen. The best and most extraordinary of these comes in the church, where Keitel questions the nun over her refusal to identify the men who raped her. She refuses to identify her attackers on the grounds that her rape raises the prospect of God's grace being bestowed on the two men. After she leaves, Keitel breaks down and see a vision of Christ standing in the church. He crawls along the floor, weeping and wailing, wanting to grasp the mysteries of God and forgiveness but being unable to reconcile that with his own shallow nature. It's an extraordinary scene in which the temporal and spiritual collide in a moment of pure passion and emotion, leaving the character devastated and the audience astonished.
After coming out of his vision, Keitel manages to track down the two men who raped the nun, but rather than turning them in, he gives them all the money he has and puts them on the first bus out of town. He does so against his better judgement, but even while he berates himself as the bus drives away, he knows in his heart that it was the right thing to do. In these scenes the Lieutenant realises in practice the true grace and compassion of Christ, with his decision mirroring that of the nun; like Thomas in the Gospels, he believes because he has seen. The film ends with the Lieutenant being murdered in his car: what seems like a cruel accident could equally be a blessed release, with the Lieutenant finally reaching heaven having performed God's works here on Earth.
Because Abel Ferrara started out as a grindhouse director, the spiritual aspects of Bad Lieutenant are not handled in a sugar-coated, airy-fairy way. Instead they come as ecstatic interludes to really brutal scenes involving nudity, violence and copious amounts of swearing, which earned the film an 18 certificate in the UK and a rare NC-17 in the States.
The film contains several very realistic depictions of drug-taking. Ferrara shoots long, uninterrupted takes in which Keitel meets with his stick-thin dealer, and warms heroin on a spoon with a lighter before injecting it into his arm. In one of the very first scenes, Keitel uses a coke spoon immediately after dropping his young nephews off to school. These scenes are shot in such clinical detail as to make drug-taking about as unglamorous as you can get: as in Requiem for a Dream, the high of taking the drug is cancelled out or overridden by the immediately painful consequences.
This discipline on Ferrara's part is equally present in the rape scene. Having previously made Ms. 45, Ferrara was well aware of the way such scenes would be structured in a duplicitous way: we almost tolerate the horrible violence because we are on the moral side of the victim and are goading her on to take revenge. But Bad Lieutenant doesn't fall into the kind of hideous duplicity present in I Spit On Your Grave. The rape scene focusses on the emotion of the nun and is intentionally repulsive. To reinforce the Christian element of the story, it is intercut with Christ on the cross, screaming as the nun screams. It's a shocking and original way of conveying the idea of Christ feeling every single pain and sin of mankind as He hung there on Good Friday.
Most controversial of all is a scene halfway through Bad Lieutenant, in which Keitel pulls over two girls, to find that they are stoned and driving without a license. Rather than turn them in, he asks one of them to strip and the other to mimic oral sex while he masturbates outside the car. James Ferman, then-Head Censor of the BBFC, was asked on several occasions why he didn't cut that scene; he responded that it was so repulsive that no sane person could possibly find it arousing. The scene is repulsive and goes on a little too long, but it does at least reinforce the distance and desperation of the Lieutenant, and arguably a graphic sex scene with girls half his age would be the greater of two evils.
There are flaws with Bad Lieutenant which prevent it from being a masterpiece. Even as we invest so deeply in Keitel's performance, we can't help wondering why he has been able to stay on the force all this time. He makes next to no effort to cover up his behaviour, and it seems a little far-fetched that even his seasoned colleagues would turn such a blind eye. As the character study deepens, the crime plot becomes almost totally peripheral, and in its weaker moments it can feel like Ferrara is testing our mettle for its own sake, seeing how much nastiness we can take before bringing back the plot to give us relief.
In the end, however, Bad Lieutenant rises above these flaws as a triumphant example of how exploitation cinema can explore serious ideas, in ways which are often more insightful and frequently more provocative than its mainstream equivalents. Keitel is outstanding in the title role, and Ferrara's direction is both merciless and mesmerising. It's a very tough watch for those not familiar with Ferrara or the traditions he has espoused throughout this career. But for those who can go the distance, it is a deeply moving piece of work.