There's no defending "Bad Lieutenant." No argument can be advanced to justify it, no insight can coax meanings out of its bloody innards, no shaman can roll bones and feathers across its textures and decode it. It's strictly a take-it-or-leave-it thing.
It's a study of extreme damnation and marginal redemption, as austere and enigmatic as the life of a saint. It's one of the rare films to sport an authentic NC-17 rating, which it deserves to every fiber of its grubby little body. It aspires to be an outlaw work of art, one of those defiant in-your-face proclamations of truth so painful it defies you to deny it. Well . . . they got the outlaw part right, at any rate.
Harvey Keitel plays a New York police officer who has stepped XTC through the membrane into corruption so enveloping it seems to have saturated his genes. He is walking blasphemy. We capture glimpses of a home life, complete with children, a wife, a sister-in-law and a mother or mother-in-law, but the lieutenant's nervous system is so shot he barely notices them. He seems to be receiving about 10 percent of conventional reality. Having lovelessly dropped his boys at school he hustles off to his life on the streets, which is largely the indulgence of an appetite so gigantic it defies belief. The Bad Lieutenant is congenitally unable to deny himself a pleasure: His working day consists of using his badge to take whatever pleases him. He has no more acquaintanceship with the concept of public service, of police work, than he does with his family.
At the scene of a horrible murder -- two beautiful young women shot through the head -- he jokes about betting on baseball with his buddies. His response to a horrible rape is voyeurism. He wanders from drug crib to drug crib, helping himself to chemical stimulants and intoxicants and slipping deeper and deeper into a narcotized daze. No defilement is beyond him, including a sordid interlude in which he accosts two teen-age girls, determines that they have violated traffic laws, and orders them to assume pornographic poses for an act of self-abuse. Besides his pleasures, the only thing he responds to is the financial catastrophe that stalks him as he falls farther and farther into debt to the Mafia by betting against the Mets in a playoff series against the Dodgers. A New Yorker who bets against the Mets? This pup is really sick.
What "saves" him -- it's the most provisional redemption in film history -- is that he is moved by the spirit of forgiveness in a violated nun (the scenes of her rape are the movie's most painful to watch), who seeks only to love her violators. Watching and marveling at her most Catholic love in some strange way heals him; he learns to forgive them and through that himself. The movie's lesson: Heaven is attainable even for a festering carbuncle on the body social like the Bad Lieutenant.
The movie has a catechism-like feeling to it: It simply asks questions numbly and answers them numbly, and in so doing categorizes his defilements and his redemptions without a lot of emotional involvement in such frills as storytelling. Properly speaking, it isn't dramatized at all, merely recorded. It doesn't build. It doesn't even use such timeless devices as "the investigation" to hold it together. Other than Kietel, it has no characters. The raped nun is merely a body, the other policemen simply faces. The movie plants you in a lonely place: his skull.
This makes it inert. Only the power of its atrocities drives it forward. The key narrative question isn't "What happens next?" but "How low will he go?" The answer is: lower still. Abel Ferrara, who directed, is shrewd enough to leave the fancy pyrotechnics of "King of New York" behind. Thank heaven; the only thing worse than atrocity on film is atrocity made beautiful on film. "Bad Lieutenant" is simply in your face.
Starring Harvey Keitel.
Directed by Abel Ferrara.
Released by Aries.