Bad Lieutenant (1991): Ferrara NC-17 Drama

Released in 1992, the intensely powerful feature “Bad Lieutenant” offers an excursion into the addictive psyche, mixing Abel Ferrara’s favorite elements of sex, drugs, and mayhem.

It was one of the first pictures to have been condemned by the Rating Board of the Motion Picture of Association America with the punitive NC-17.

Did “Bad Lieutenant” deserve this rating?  Would the film be as shokcing today as it was two decades ago?

Here is what I wrote after seeing the film at the 1992 Toronto Film Fest:

An intensely religious film, “Bad Lieutenant” lacks the balletic butchery of Ferrara’s “King of New York,” made in 1990,  but it’s basically the same morality play, reflecting Ferrara’s fascination with reclaimed sinners who are desperate for salvation and redemption in a world devoid of love and decency.

Bad_Lieutenant_10_keitel_thornHowever, for most viewers, 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.

Bad_Lieutenant_8_keitelAs 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 had instilled in Ferrara’s as a child later surfaces in his films, both consciously and subconsciously, both in the text and the subtext.


Bad_Lieutenant_4_keitel“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.

Bad_Lieutenant_5_keitelJust 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.

Bad_Lieutenant_2_keitel_thornIn 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.

Bad_Lieutenant_3_keitelFerrara 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 ratings helped: “Bad Lieutenant” didn’t become an emblematic document of the 1990s, but it did become Ferrara’s most commercial film to date.