There is no redemption without, first, debasement; no transcendence without transgression; no forgiveness without sin. In this NC-17-rated film, Keitel is the Bad Lieutenant -- a lapsed Catholic, drug-soaked, compulsively gambling detective. He takes crack from his perps, admires the bodies of female corpses, treats his suburban family with contempt, bets himself into spiraling debt with the mob, participates in S&M sex shows with lesbian hookers, shoots smack with his junkie girlfriend (played by co-scriptwriter Zoe Lund) and snorts lines off his daughter's communion picture. This man has hit the scummy bottom. He's so soulless and background-less we never even learn his name; we know this indifferent man only as the Bad Lieutenant. With an almost biblical structure, the movie is set in New York during the seven games of the World Series: Dodgers vs. Mets. The Series provides the moral backbone for the film, kind of a desecrated stations of the cross structure. Keitel keeps doubling his bets until he's 120 grand in the hole to the mob. Set against this background is the sordid case he's working on (for the generous reward money more than anything else). A young nun is brutally raped on her church altar by a couple of neighborhood youths. Though she knows her attackers, she will not identify them to the police because, in her mind, she has already forgiven them. Her charity stuns the cynical lieutenant even as he begs her to “get with the program.” Her example leads him to commit an act of self-redemption and forgiveness even more senseless and paradoxical than the nun's. That's as much plot as you ever get in Bad Lieutenant;
it's more moral landscape and character study than anything else. Though it takes on degenerateness and moral degradation as its subject matter, the movie is remarkably chaste in its graphic depictions. The NC-17 rating has as much to do with its intrinsic thematic turpitude, as with specifics like Keitel's frontal nudity in one scene and lingering shots of needles embedded in veins. Yet the movie's centerpiece sex scene, which involves no removal of clothing, is one of the most disturbing encounters ever portrayed. Keitel pulls over two New Jersey teens in their daddy's car and uses the power of his badge to force the girls into a humiliating sexual pantomime. The scene lasts, I'm told, an excruciating eight minutes, all the while no bodies touch and no X-rated body parts are seen. Still, it's the most degrading and distanced depiction of a sex act I've seen since the early Andy Warhol movies. We're solidly in Abel Ferrara country here. Ferrara penetrates the seamier outskirts of urban life with films like Driller Killer
(about an artist driven really crazy when a punk rock band movies in next door), Ms. 45
(starring Bad Lieutenant
collaborator Lund as a mute rape victim who metes out her own revenge) and King of New York
(with Christopher Walken as a crime boss with humanitarian ideals). With Bad Lieutenant,
the violence becomes more inherent than explicit. Most of all, this character study is a showcase for Keitel. It's a brave, unbound performance that frequently has him howling in inarticulate guttural sobs. It's an impressive tour de force, at times almost too impressive. You find yourself watching a great actor at work more than a bad lieutenant on the road to absolution. This movie is not for all tastes. Certainly, it is not “appealing.” But what it lacks in charm, it compensates for with audacity and single-mindedness of vision.