Saturday, February 16, 2013

Bad Lieutenant

The sight of Harvey Keitel on the DVD cover of Bad Lieutenant (1992) aiming a large gun brings to mind images of Dirty Harry, Charles Bronson, or some other rogue police officer vigilante taking the law into his own hands. Yet, nothing could be more misleading. This is not the story of one cop seeking to impose justice.

Harvey Keitel is no stranger to playing nasty characters, nor is he unfamiliar with playing crooked cops. But in Cop Land, at least his crime boss officer was able to play both sides of the spectrum, managing to appear as a benevolent cop who keeps his community safe while trafficking drugs and murdering those who upset the good thing he's got going. It's easy to see how Sylvester Stallone's honest sheriff could idolize his "Uncle Ray" and turn a blind eye to the chinks in the moral armor.

In Bad Lieutenant, there's no hiding this rotten core; his status as police officer, he figures, grants him the right to act however he wants with no consequences. His anger, perversion, shame, and toxic morality are right there on display for all to see, and it's not pretty. This is a movie about a man so intoxicated with his own power and so angry at the rest of the world, everything else seemingly exists only to serve him until it destroys him.

Keitel plays the eponymous character of Bad Lieutenant, which is directed by Abel Ferrara. Curiously, although we meet his family, watch him on the job, and witness his gambling and drug addictions, we never learn his name, his identity absorbed by his position and his vices. The lieutenant, the only title he's referred to, is a New York City cop. His day begins by dropping his two sons off at Catholic school and then snorting cocaine in the car. From there, he goes to a crime scene where two young women have been murdered; after a cursory exam of the scene, he begins taking bets with fellow officers about the Mets-Dodgers playoff games. He steals drug evidence to sell (and do) and threatens, bribes, intimidates, and/or lies to everyone he encounters.

While there are a few other characters that pop in and out of the movie - fellow cops, drug dealers, a bookie, prostitutes, and perhaps most importantly a nun - the lieutenant is squarely the focus the entire time. Ferrara keeps the camera anchored on the lieutenant, the environment around him a hazy, rundown blur that's barely perceptible. Even when the lieutenant's mother-in-law sees him snorting coke, her response is to ignore it. It's tempting to call the movie plot-less because we essentially follow him around as he goes about his different activities, but it soon becomes clear he's not in control as much as he thinks. His gambling debts begin piling up as one sure bet after another collapses, his addictions increasingly interfere with how he functions, and he angers people it's best not to be on the bad side of.

Bad Lieutenant is a tough movie to watch. Not only is the title character such a despicable bastard, there are some scenes of explicit drug use and graphic sexual violence. When the lieutenant shoots, heroin, we see the entire procedure, right down to wince-inducing shots of the needle going into the vein and being shifted around as blood is extracted. At another point, the lieutenant takes out his anger on two teenage girls. They don't have driver's licenses and don't want their father to know they have his car, so they reluctantly go along when the lieutenant tells one to strip and forces the other to simulate a sex act while he masturbates.

The film has a raw, grungy feel through most of the proceedings until the near the end. The lieutenant visits a nun in the church she was raped in. Knowing the reward for catching the perpetrators would help his gambling debts, he practically begs her to identify her rapists, but she, a devout follower of Christ, refuses, saying she has already forgiven them. He's stunned she wouldn't want justice, but she remains steadfast and leaves. Despondent, the lieutenant rants and raves against a hallucination of Jesus, appearing as he did on the cross. He demands answers and miracles, but the Savior remains bloodied and silent. There is no redemption.

No comments:

Post a Comment