Bad Lieutenant (1991): Abel Ferrara’s Controversial Indie Starring Harvey Keitel

The scabrously powerful indie film, Bad Lieutenant, offers an excursion into the addictive psyche, mixing Abel Ferrara’s favorite elements of sex, drugs, and mayhem.

An intensely religious film, Bad Lieutenant lacks the balletic butchery of King of New York, but it’s basically the same morality play, reflecting Ferrara’s fascination with reclaimed sinners desperate for salvation in a world devoid of love and decency. However, this movie stands out in presenting soul-scorched sordidness and moral disintegration without the usual Ferrara’s visceral thrills.

Harvey Keitel plays a strung-out cop who has crossed the border between law and disorder. He is so abhorrent, he doesn’t even have a name. Known only as Lieutenant, he spends his days drinking, snorting, freebasing, shooting up, gambling, and harassing women. The lieutenant abuses his power in every possible and perverse way–doing everything a cop isn’t supposed to do. Arresting two teenage girls from the burbs, he subjects them to sexual humiliation in their car while masturbating. On his final descent into hell, he threatens to take with him all those within reach.

As heavily steeped in Catholicism as it is in street life, Bad Lieutenant represents an unwieldy mix of the sordid and spiritual that drew Ferrara even more comparisons with Scorsese. Like Scorsese, what Catholicism instilled in Ferrara’s as a child surfaces in his films. Bad Lieutenant, like Taxi Driver, represents a harrowing journey through the ugliest ruins of civilization. The pitch is Scorsese, but the mood may be Polanski. Unlike Scorsese, Ferrara perceives violence as a metaphor: “A lot of this shooting is just symbolic of interpersonal violence, and how people who love each other hurt each other the most.” Ferrara sees his mission in raising compassion and forgiveness in a society dominated by hatred and violence.

Just as the lieutenant is about to hit bottom, he is drawn to a rape case involving a nun (Zoe Lund) in Spanish Harlem. When he first hears of the Church’s reward for capturing the rapists, he says, “Why should it make a difference if she’s a nun Girls are raped every day and the church doesn’t care enough to offer a reward.” Initially, he pursues the case to get the reward, but, as a once-devout Catholic his religious training and moral upbringing begin to torment his numbed conscience. Obsessed with the nun’s sublime forgiveness for the rapists, he undergoes a crisis of faith and becomes consumed by the prospect of redemption.

In what’s close to a one-man show, Keitel gives a bracing performance, stripping himself down to raw emotional desperation. Keitel is at his best when he’s reined in–when one sees his internal battle between good and bad, but he’s at his silliest when he goes all out as a modern Christ–arms outspread–as he stands naked in the middle of an orgy. There are visceral scenes of despair and anguish that bear Christian overtones: In the climax, the lieutenant crawls across a church floor, cursing Jesus with “you fuck, you ratfucker, you fuck,” shock value that is more theoretical than realistic.

Ferrara and co-writer Zoe Lund confront transgressive issues, redemption and defeat in a film that divided critics more for its intellectual pretension than for its sacrilege or violence. Bad Lieutenant feels like an academic exercise, taking the concept of the anti-hero to an extreme. The logic of the film seems to be determined by the desire to shock, as if the director were compiling a list of offensive acts never before seen on the big screen.

Bad Lieutenant didn’t mark the first time Ferrara had a tangle with the ratings board, but it was the first time a film of his bore NC-17. The rating fits Ferrara’s film to a T. “It was designed to be NC-17,” he said, “if is wasn’t, we’d have nothing to sell.”

The rating helped: Bad Lieutenant didn’t become an emblematic document of the 1990s, but it did become Ferrara’s most commercial film to date.