Monday, December 7, 2009
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.