Posted on 12/06/09 10:00 PM
"Bad Lieutenant" may be Harvey Keitel's crowning moment as a badass, heightened by the ferocity of his character's drive to mess up his life as much as possible. Nameless, angry and addicted, the lieutenant behaves like a nihilistic Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey if he had tried to take revenge on himself. After watching Keitel in "Mean Streets" recently, I've gained a new respect for his ability as an actor. This is a brave performance, one that took sheer guts.
In one scene, Keitel stands totally exposed before the camera with his arms outstretched and weeping, high as a kite in the company of two prostitutes. How has this man reached such a low point? He has kids, a badge, a place to sleep at night. Though he wears a wedding ring prominently, his wife (Peggy Gormley) is rarely shown, and they certainly don't converse. The lieutenant is shown waking up on the couch at home in a hungover daze while his family gazes at him solemnly, as though they've already begun their grieving process.
Director and co-writer Abel Ferrara knows we've seen this archetype before. Whatever the reason for the lieutenant's decline, he is heading straight for the bottom, his ethical failures typified in scene after scene. I was fascinated by the film's abandon in capturing the fall as Keitel gambles, smokes and injects drugs, attempts to steal drugs from a crime scene, engages in illicit sex, forces two women to get him off, laughs in an indignant bookie's face, snorts cocaine off of a picture of his kids, shoots his pistol at his car radio and takes stolen cash from a pair of robbers rather than arresting them. The film received an NC-17 rating on its release. Certain scenes remain hard to watch, yet are compelling in their rawness.
Keitel is gloriously over the top in the midst of it all, culminating in a scene in a church, where a vision of Christ (Paul Hipp) appears before him. Keitel howls like a wounded animal, crawling on his hands and knees and pleading for forgiveness. Emotions of guilt and sadness have swelled to the bursting point in this figure, who bets thousands on the Dodgers but can no longer dodge the consequences of his actions. He collapses next to a kneeling nun (Frankie Thorn), a rape victim who has forgiven her attackers. Disheveled and nearly broken, he demands her explanation, not because he can't understand but because he desperately wants to forgive himself.
In not revealing too much about the lieutenant's character beyond his self-destructive behaviour, Ferrara and co-writers Victor Argo, Paul Calderon and Zoë Lund simplified a formula, letting only its most affecting parts bristle on screen. It works because of Keitel's commitment. The lieutenant is bad by virtue of his actions, but he is also hurt and unable to fully turn away from his faith. In the end, he redeems himself by action and is fittingly relieved of his misery.
"We eat away at ourselves until there's nothing left but appetite," the lieutenant is told in a drug-induced haze by a fellow junkie (Lund). A position of power can take hold of a weak-willed individual. That power can come to feel deserved, leaving justice as an afterthought. Bad things can start to seem rational in a career that can bend toward moral ambivalence. In "Mean Streets", Keitel held his hand over an open flame to get himself used to the fires of hell. In "Bad Lieutenant", he plays a man already in hell, dousing the flames with liquor in a vain attempt to extinguish them.