Monday, December 7, 2009

Bad Lieutenant


Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant is a film entirely built around its central performance, Harvey Keitel's fearless, unfettered turn as a corrupt, unnamed New York City police lieutenant. Keitel delivers a performance of unrelenting power and intensity, a nasty, ugly portrayal of a man on a mission of self-destruction. He staggers through a filthy, dimly lit vision of New York, doing drugs in grimy apartments and even grimier hallways, pulling out his gun at a moment's provocation, engaging in sordid sexual exploits even though he actually seems barely interested, and must have so many drugs in his system that real sexuality is impossible anyway. It's a sloppy, crazy performance, and Keitel pours himself into it, breathing life into this bottom-dwelling man, this guy who, for no discernible reason, seems bent on bringing himself to the lowest possible place.

In order to document this everyman's descent into ruin, Ferrara smears the screen with brilliant, hallucinatory imagery, increasingly spiraling into a subjective vision of a truly horrifying world, a world where everything is stacked against this antihero, this shambling wreck of a man. It's apparent early on that the film is working on a symbolic level when, during an orgy with an unnamed young woman and a fey pretty boy, Keitel stumbles around naked, his arms outstretched like Jesus. It's the film's first Christ pose, but there will be many more: Keitel's journey through the New York underworld is explicitly defined as a religious experience, a struggle to come to terms with his spirituality in the context of his complete moral degradation. Jesus himself appears, as well, coming down from the cross still freshly bleeding, silently observing Keitel's plight.

Though there are obvious signs of degradation in everything Keitel does here, the true symbol of his self-destructive streak is contained in his masochistic fascination with the (entirely imaginary) World Series between the Mets and the Dodgers. Keitel is a compulsive gambler, of course; he has such a compulsive personality that there's seemingly no desire, no need, that he can resist. He spends the bulk of the film wheedling his fellow cops into putting their money on the underdog Mets, who had already lost the first three games of the series and were thus one loss away from throwing it all away. In the meantime, though, Keitel is rooting against his own home team, putting increasingly extravagant amounts of money on the Dodgers and getting deeper and deeper into debt as the Mets pull back from the brink of defeat, winning one game after another against all odds. Keitel is a born loser, basically, failing to see himself in his shaggy hometown team: as the Mets come back again and again, dramatically turning the tide of the series, Keitel only sinks deeper into his self-created abyss, masochistically letting his debt ride on each game until he is in so far over his head that he has to know he'll never get out. It's a rich irony, and Ferrara utilizes the patter of the games' sports announcers as a near-constant soundtrack, a low-level buzz in the background of many key scenes, steadily ticking towards Keitel's ruin as the announcers cheerfully document the Mets' improbable victory.


The film's plot, such as it is, focuses around Keitel's halfhearted attempts to investigate the vicious rape of a Catholic nun (Frankie Thorn) at a church. This scene is a brutal slap in the face, as visceral and horrifying as Keitel's performance. Two men strip the nun and beat her, holding her down on an altar as they defile her. Ferrara deliberately constructs the scene as a collage of religious desecration: a statue of the Virgin Mary toppling over, the chalice with the host being overturned, a crucifix being used as a weapon, and finally Jesus himself pierced on a cross, crying out in anguish in unison with the nun. This profound, violent insult to Catholicism seems to awaken something primal in Keitel's lieutenant, who is a Catholic but, obviously, a rather disconnected one, abstracted from his supposed faith. At one point, he watches his daughter receive communion and smiles with paternal pride, but not long after he can be seen snorting cocaine off of his daughter's communion picture.

His Catholicism actually seems to be tied up with his masochistic tendencies, his guilt and conflicted desire to achieve some kind of spiritual stasis from his tormented existence. As Keitel gets deeper and deeper into debt with his bookie, he's warned that he's going to get himself killed, and he simply responds, "I'm a Catholic, I can't be killed." It's this shallow understanding of religious feeling that drives him throughout the film, leading him at one point to go literally crawling on his knees towards a bleeding Jesus, kissing his savior's bloody, dirty feet. Ferrara is probing a kind of primal religious feeling, religion stripped to a raw essence, as represented not only by Keitel but by the nun as well. In a crucial scene, Keitel comes face to face with the nun — who he'd earlier observed voyeuristically at the hospital where she was recovering — and finds that she will not reveal the identities of her attackers because she forgives them. Keitel becomes like a devil on her shoulder, cajoling her, trying to get her to forsake her saintly pose, to wish for earthly justice instead of maintaining this attitude of stoic spiritual devotion. The conflict here is between Keitel, mired in the world, in the flesh, and the nun, who places herself above worldly concerns altogether, above even her own body, which means so little to her that she ultimately shrugs off its desecration. Keitel is unable to understand her forgiveness, unable to accept a worldview so at odds with his own, a way of thinking that is entirely distant from the physical world and its problems.


The film is thus seeped in Catholic guilt, in the simultaneous shame and primal attraction of sin, which Keitel's debased lieutenant wallows in throughout the film. In scene after scene, he pushes the boundaries of his performance into uncomfortable areas, such as the lengthy sequence where he threatens a pair of underage girls (who actually look like they're at least thirty, but nevermind) into baring themselves and simulating oral sex. Keitel's repetitive insistence that one girl should "show me how you suck a cock" verges from sinister to nearly comical to exhausting. His performance is frequently hard to watch, even embarrassing, and he projects a kind of emotional nakedness at every moment, as though his inner self is always right there on the surface, ready to explode outwards. His whiny, blubbering outbursts give way to sequences where he maintains more of a steely Dirty Harry-esque coldness; in one scene, Ferrara places his camera so it looks up the barrel of Keitel's gun as the cop threatens a pair of criminals.

Some of the best sequences involve Keitel's visits to a waifish redhead (Zoë Lund) who gives him drugs. She's drifting and narcotized, seemingly living in her own world, disconnected from the messy corporeal reality of the lieutenant's existence. Drugs, perhaps, are another way of achieving the nun's beautific separation from the worldly, recasting Keitel's habitual drug use as another way of chasing spiritual enlightenment, another way of locating the divine in the mundane and filthy. Her introduction is darkly comic as she wanders around her apartment in a daze, always a step behind, muttering to herself and casting sly, bright-eyed gazes at Keitel as he shoots up. But in a moment of lucidity, she also delivers what might be the film's mantra, its central theme distilled to an essence: "Vampires are lucky; they get to feed on others. We've gotta eat away at ourselves."

Indeed, Keitel spends the entire film eating away at himself, wearing himself down to nothing until his eventual implosion. It's an astonishing performance, a performance with no sense of boundaries or limits, and Ferrara admirably supports his actor with a skeletal framework that defines Keitel's seemingly aimless quest as a search for spirituality and redemption. The film nearly implodes by the end, descending into confusion and mystery, but that's perhaps appropriate, since Keitel never really gets the answers he wants, never really achieves the higher state he's so desperate to attain. He never gets above his mire, instead sinking deeper and deeper until the inevitable denouement is an expected anticlimax, the sad last whimper of a sad man.

25 comments:

Ariel said...

Thanks for posting that picture. Makes me hot.

Ed Howard said...

Just be thankful I chose one where his penis is flopping around below the frame.

J.D. said...

Excellent post! This is an incredible film and I would rank right up with THE ADDICTION as one of Ferrara's best. He really knows how to take an audience down and rub their nose in the grime and degradation of a protagonist's world quite unlike any other filmmaker out there.

Sam Juliano said...

An excellent review of the film that I consider to be Ferrera's best, though the re-make-in-spirit by Werner Herzog, BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS, may edge it out in visual inventiveness and obvious levity. Cage rivals Keitel too. The examination here of the Christian subtext is most impressive, and my vivid memory of this film corroborates this.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, J.D. and Sam. I'm really excited to see the Herzog non-remake, as well, which promises to be totally insane in a totally different way from Ferrara's gritty study in degradation.

Drew said...

Great writing Ed. One of my very favorite films from the 90's.

"she also delivers what might be the film's mantra, its central theme distilled to an essence: "Vampires are lucky; they get to feed on others. We've gotta eat away at ourselves.""

The scenes with Lund are definitely the most haunting in a movie filled with such sequences, and the line delivered above has such a remarkable impact. It's not just happenstance Lund gave herself that line; she wrote the screenplay then went on to die from her own drug use just a couple of years later.

Unfortunately I found myself supremely disappointed with the recent Herzog version; a film so incredibly in love with its own eccentricities and quirkiness that it ends up being merely a novelty act with no aim or sense of humanity. I absolutely adore Herzog but I have just no idea what he was doing with this.

And Sam said:

"Cage rivals Keitel too."

which I simply could not disagree with more. I found the Cage performance mired in a pure silliness that, while it's certainly enjoyable in its own way, is easily forgettable and doesn't come close to stacking up against the scintillating, hauntingly raw performance given by Keitel - one of the truly great roles of the 90's.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Excellent post, Ed. This is a key Ferrara. His primary feelings about Catholicism are on display here,but in the more complex Mary he goes even deeper -- albeit without Harvey's inspired shenanigans.

James said...

Great Post Ed. I found this to be a really tough, uncomfortable and challenging film to watch. Its so unrelenting in its intensity. I do love Ferrara's depictions of New York though and I completely agree with you that the scenes with Zoe Lund, especially the one where she says 'Vampires are lucky; they get to feed on others. We've gotta eat away at ourselves' - are so haunting. I think she also co-wrote the film. Such a talented and tragic woman.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, guys. Drew, I didn't know about Lund's tragic life; it gives a new resonance to her performance to know just how much of herself she must have been pouring into those strange, enigmatic glances she casts at Keitel. The scenes with her are truly electric; hers is the only presence in the film that gives Keitel some competition, a respite from his solo scenery-chewing. (Which is not to say the other performers are bad by any means, and Frankie Thorn is especially good with her distanced performance, as though she's speaking from a higher plane, already halfway up to heaven.)

David, I definitely need to see more Ferrara, including Mary. I found this film's examination of Catholic guilt and ambivalent feelings about the world to be really compelling.

James, totally agreed that it's often tough to watch. There were scenes where I was really wincing, internally longing for it just to be over already, to assuage the discomfort. The scene where Keitel pulls over those two underage girls is a case in point.

Sam Juliano said...

"And Sam said:

"Cage rivals Keitel too."

which I simply could not disagree with more. I found the Cage performance mired in a pure silliness that, while it's certainly enjoyable in its own way, is easily forgettable and doesn't come close to stacking up against the scintillating, hauntingly raw performance given by Keitel - one of the truly great roles of the 90's."

That's fine that you feel that way Drew, but take a look at the critical concensus where just about every film scribe in America agrees with my position (or I agree with them) You are virtually the first person I can come across both on line or in person who feels that way. Furthermore, I think you may have misconstrued what I said. When I posed that "Cage rivals Keitel" I meant to say he rivaled him in th eexcellence of his performance, not in "type" as you seem to have translated.
To say that Cage's performance is basically "forgettable"......well, I won't even go there.

But fair enough, you are entitled to your position, as I am to mine.

Drew said...

"That's fine that you feel that way Drew, but take a look at the critical concensus where just about every film scribe in America agrees with my position (or I agree with them) You are virtually the first person I can come across both on line or in person who feels that way."

While I could hardly care how my opinion stacks up against the tomato-meter, I am definitely not the fist person to be decidedly unimpressed with the movie and Cage's performance. In fact, within my group of cinephile friends, I was surprised to learn that most of us had a pretty tepid reaction. I've talked to many people who were neutral on the movie. I've talked to many who loved it. Believe it or not my opinion is not quite as radical as you and the "critical consensus" make it out to be.

"Furthermore, I think you may have misconstrued what I said. When I posed that "Cage rivals Keitel" I meant to say he rivaled him in th eexcellence of his performance, not in "type" as you seem to have translated. To say that Cage's performance is basically "forgettable"......well, I won't even go there."

No, I was referring to the excellence of the performance, which is the context I took your comments in. I think Keitel's bravura performance left us with one of the most indelible, tragic cinematic characters of the 90's. I think Cage has been wonderful before (Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, Moonstruck), but his performance in this version was simply eccentric to be eccentric, over the top just for the sake of it, which is not necessarily a bad thing at all in a Herzog film, however he failed to inject any humanity into the role when the film called for it (something Kinski did with a fiery passion so wonderfully in past Herzog masterpieces). Thus, I found the performance to ultimately be one-note and forgettable, in terms of making any lasting impression within the context of both Cage's career and the current cinematic zeitgeist. I was obviously not referring to the character "types" as these two films are separate beasts completely, to be critiqued on their own distinct merits.

Sam Juliano said...

Drew, if I thought you were being as obvious as you claim to be, I wouldn't have erred or even suggested that you were thinking otherwise. Cage was purposely eccentric as Herzog wanted him to be. You can wax lyrical all you want about Keitel's performance being one of the most tragic and indellible characters of the 90's and all that, (I personally think you are going overboard there, but fair enough if that's what you think) but maybe a good number of us feel Cage -an actor I never much cared for previosuly, by the way - was no less electrifing in his Hunter S. Thompsonish performance, which is mercifully far less austere than the one you apparently venerate to the extreme. As to your claim that Cage "failed to inject any humanity into the role" I completely and utterly disagree. His character metamorphosis was much in keeping with the events that shaped this change, and the inherent changes in his persona was consistent within that parameter. The role didn't call for the kind of treatment you are no faulting it for.

Again, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I would have never continued this mild disagreement had you not on this thread taken me to task for the position I evinced in my original comment. You expressed yourself well, so in the end that's all I can ask for.

Drew said...

Fair enough Sam. We both obviously feel strongly about our opinions which is probably a testament to the strength and success of each respective film and performance how we see them. I should (and will) give the Herzog one another shot - I admittedly blame a great deal of my reaction on the probably unrealistically high expectations I had for this project. I just thought the original was a watershed moment in two already distinguished careers, and I just don't really see the same result here for Cage/Herzog, but I certainly respect any difference of opinion and never meant for my words to sound as otherwise, and I will certainly be open to re-evaluating my own stance upon another viewing.

Please keep up the great work on your blog as well - I'm a big fan of what you're doing over there, just wanted to mention that.

Sam Juliano said...

Drew, as you know my blog (and I very much appreciate those kind words!) you also know as Ed does that I have a glaring weakness, which is that I always bring in other critics for leverage to back up my own opinion. I must find a way to resist that tact, it's grow tiresome an dstale, I'll admit it.

Thanks ever so much again!

bill r. said...

It's apparent early on that the film is working on a symbolic level when, during an orgy with an unnamed young woman and a fey pretty boy...

I thought that was two chicks, one of whom was butch...

Either way, I agree with what I'm assuming everyone else has already said, which is that this movie is super sexy.

Ed Howard said...

Huh. Well I suppose that's possible, Bill. I'd go back and rewatch that scene to find out, but I think my wife's already been traumatized enough by the sight of Harvey Keitel naked.

bill r. said...

I'll check it out tonight, Ed, and report back. Everyone, please be patient!

Great review, by the way. I've always had a...I don't know if "soft spot" is really the phrase I want here, but I've always admired this film, more than I've actually liked it. It's a fascinating film, though, and still tough to watch 17 years later.

And I wonder if there's some deeper connection between Keitel and Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love" beyond that it was used in this film and in MEAN STREETS. What that deeper connection might be, I couldn't tell you, but I associate the song with him now.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Cage gave one truly inspired performance in Vampire's Kiss Outside of that and Leaving Las Vegas his career has been pretty much a wash-out.

A perpetual hang-dog countenance doesn't automatically equal existential angst.

Jandy Stone said...

Really good review, as usual, Ed. I saw this for the first time a few weeks ago, but was at a loss for what to say about it. You put into words a lot of what I kind of sensed and felt about it but couldn't really manage to verbalize. And thanks for making sense of the ever-present baseball references which I mostly tuned out due to my apathy regarding sports.

I haven't see the Herzog film yet, but the contingent of Row Three writers that went to TIFF came back deeply divided on whether it was a wacked out masterpiece or a complete failure in every regard. It was on both our Best of Fest and Worst of Fest lists, I think.

Greg said...

I like seeing my last name mentioned so much. You should review more Abel Ferrara movies.

Great review btw but I've seen it once, when it was released, can't remember much right now and haven't seen the remake so... I have nothing to add.

But seeing my name... cool.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, we eagerly await your report.

Jandy, thanks a lot. I think missing out on the baseball references is a big detriment in this film; the baseball games seem like mere background, but they feed into the film's themes and characterizations in a big way.

Greg, any relation?

As for the big Cage debate, I think he can be good within a narrow range (stoic and downtrodden) and outside of that range, he can be either totally awful or campy and ridiculous. It looks like Herzog is deliberately playing up the latter quality in his performance in Bad Lieutenant. I'm very curious to see how that works out.

Greg said...

We're all related if you go back far enough.

Anonymous said...

Great film. I especially-love how the film centers around the Mets/Dodgers championship series. I honestly-don't know if this was Zoe Lund's idea or simply something that Ferrara came up with, but that was an absolute stroke of brilliance. The opening scene with the radio host talking was genius. A perfect example of the spirit of NY baseball fans.

I'm a big fan of Zoe Lund. Her performance is so-ultra-groggy, however, her character comes across as either the antithesis of the nun or Jesus himself. Not sure which, but her performance is essential to the film.

Lastly, I love Abel Ferrara's unapologetic view of NYC's dark, sleazy side. One of the best cop films ever made IMO.

Michael said...

As others have stated, an excellent and mainly lucid review.

However, having seemingly grasped the central theme of redemption, it feels remiss of you to reduce the ending to "the sad last whimper of a sad man", and it makes me question if you fully understood the film.

Keitel's Bad Lieutenant is indeed unable to understand the nun's forgiveness and concordant serenity but he envies and desires it. He ultimately recognises it as the only means of salvation from his tortured existence. Plainly put, the thought writhing around in his mind is "if she can forgive them, I can be forgiven".

After he reaches his lowest point, believing himself to be beyond earthly salvation, he begs Jesus for forgiveness and in so doing realises that he must forgive the rapists too, that he is no better or worse a sinner.

His forgiveness by commuting punishment to exile is a sacrificial act of atonement that grants him absolution.

In return, he is swiftly released from the pain and degradation of his earthly life.

He is saved.

Anonymous said...

Never understood the irony of the Mets pulling back a four game deficit until recently learning about baseball in New York!