NetFlix Review #26: Bad Lieutenant

Martin Scorsese once said that he had only two interests in life, religion and the movies. There's a reason I frequently call the man my favorite director of all time - we have much in common. I find hardly anything in this great big world more interesting than movies or religion. So when a movie wrestles with religion, really and truly grapples with it, I sit up and take notice.

On a very surface level it seems ridiculous to say that Bad Lieutenant is a religious movie. It's rated NC-17. The movie is most famous for Harvey Keitel showing his junk. There's rape, drug use, violence, all manner of nastiness. However, below the surface the movie runs on pure religious dogma, and its question to us is this: what does it truly mean to forgive, both others and ourselves? How does God forgive?

Keitel plays The Lieutenant, one who is bad in pretty much every sense of the word. He's a drug addict, a gambler, he buys women, mistreats his family, uses his job to extort young women. Abel Ferrara, the movie's director, tips the scales nearly to the point of absurdity to make sure we see Keitel's lieutenant for the scum that he is. He doesn't want us to feel that the lieutenant is merely a rake who doesn't play by the book and goes outside the lines sometimes. He wants us to see that this man is a very, very bad lieutenant, indeed. Things begin to change when a nun is raped by a couple of teens. Slowly remorse begins to creep into the lieutenant's life, and as he begins to re-evaluate his life, it begins unraveling at the seems.

For all that Ferrara hits the button-pushing pretty hard, he also knows just how to throw in an image or a connection that cleverly undermines the shock of what you're seeing by forcing you to re-evaluate how you see it. What is important is the follow-through.Take, for instance, the rape scene. Intercut with the violence is a scene of the crucifixion. This could easily be written of as simple shock value, but knowing where the movie goes, Ferrrara seems to be showing us that this is what the nun was thinking of during this violating act. Later in the film the nun forgives her assailants, as that's what Jesus would have done. Keitel finds this unimaginable, but this woman believes that the pain she felt was nothing compared to the pain Christ felt, and if Christ could forgive those who killed him, she can forgive those who raped her. It's an extraordinarily difficult thing to grapple with, and Ferrara hits it head on. When Keitel goes to the hospital to check in on the nun, he walks in on her being examined. The nun is revealed to be an incredibly beautiful woman, and as Keitel leers at her unseen from behind the door Ferrara is putting him in a similar position to the rapists. Later we sense that Keitel has felt that connection as well. His rage against the nun for not turning in her assailants becomes rage towards himself for being like them, not only in his sinful ways, but in that he too has gone unpunished.

Keitel's performance is, at the very least, fearless. His actual acting abilities have, at times, been a subject of much heated debate, but he certainly never phones it in. His role here is stunning. There is, of course, the infamous nude scene, which gets much more attention for Keitel's schlong than it does for its religious implications - a naked man in a state of "ecstacy" with his arms in the position of the cross. He's also not just naked physically, but emotionally. He staggers around, mewling and crying like a child. He knows there's something wrong, that he has something to answer for, but he cannot find those answers. He is lost, naked and bestial, yet even in that state, as he cries out to heaven, a part of him echoes the image of a dying Christ. It is, in its way, extraordinarily powerful stuff. Near the end of the movie, when the lieutenant is doing what he now thinks is right, something which goes against every instinct in his body, Keitel plays the character with an actual, audible wincing moan between lines, as though he is physically wracked with pain at what he's doing. It's an extreme, daring choice, unglamorous, uncool and grating, but to my mind fascinating and well within the aesthetic of the film.

It's also intriguing to watch Ferrara defy expectations throughout the movie. When you hear the plot description for Bad Lieutenant you think of the gritty 70s exploitation flicks or, at the heighth of the artistic ladder, Scorsese's brilliant early work like Mean Streets and Taxi Driver. However, Ferrara denies us the sexy anti-hero, titillation and violent catharsis we've come to associate with those movies. Keitel's lieutenant isn't really daring, dangerous or misunderstood. He's just... bad. Bad at his job, bad with his family, a bad person in total. The "sex" scenes provide none of the naughty vouyerism of some other "gritty" movies. The rape is nasty and punctuated by images of Jesus on the cross. When Keitel pulls over two girls driving without a license and uses his power as a police officer to sexually exploit them Ferrara doesn't ramp up the raunch, but instead makes it long, drawn out and painful. It doesn't feel "sleazy dirty," it feels horribly, uncomfortably real. As in the nun rape scene, Ferrara uses a distancing technique which also implicates the viewer - Keitel doesn't actually have sex with the girls, but forces one girl to show him her bottom and has the other mime oral sex while he masturbates. He's not physically doing anything to them, he's watching them - just like the audience is.

Also, not to get into heavy spoilerage, but I like the way the end of the film sets up a big, Taxi Driver-esque confrontation, and then completely pulls the rug out from under it. It's a move that is both ballsy and deflating, which kind of sums up the whole movie. As we were discussing the movie afterwords Emily said, and I agreed, that it's a much more enjoyable movie to discuss than to watch. In between the bravura moments are long stretches filled with slow drug scenes, shots of Keitel walking around places and also listening to baseball games on the radio. While there are certainly a few wonderful elements to be found in those scenes (I love that Keitel unceasingly bets against his home team. Talk about self-loathing!), and you have to respect Ferrara's DIY, on-the-cheap approach, they don't liven up the already dour proceedings. It's definitely a fascinating flick, but I highly recommend watching it with someone you can chat with about it later. You'll want to.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.