The movie that made Harvey Keitel an icon at last, and without sacrificing a molecule of his mulish integrity, Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant” (1992) was a high watermark for both men—an autopsy of a man’s ruined life, and an examination of appetite and its consequences that fixed hell’s location inside the human heart. The Lieutenant—whose real name is never revealed—is a worst-case scenario of hypermasculine weakness, a crooked, boozing, dope-shooting cop who hustles around New York trying to track down a couple of teenagers who raped a nun while simultaneously trying to avoid getting killed by gangsters to whom he owes hundreds of thousands of dollars in gambling debts. Judged purely as a spiral into darkness, it was damned hard to beat. Ferrara and Keitel were Bertolucci and Brando doing “Last Tango in New York,” only this time, the suicidal hero fucked himself.
I first saw this movie when I was writing movie reviews for the Dallas Observer, and it didn’t just impress me, it wiped me out. I believed then, and still believe now, that it’s a classic, possibly Ferrara’s purest and most direct statement of who he is and what his career has been about. In the repertory house of my imagination, I’d put it on a double bill with “Raging Bull,” another study in rage, sexual dysfunction and Roman Catholic attraction-repulsion in the face of sin. Ferrara, I wrote in 1993 when the film finally played Dallas, “...is a spiritual man, but not traditionally religious. Raised Catholic, he has few good things to say about the church. Like Martin Scorsese, he’s fascinated with sin, spirituality and redemption, but aside from that, he has little in common with Scorsese (except, perhaps, for the street milieu). Scorsese loves visual representations of sin; they make for gorgeous images, and he alternates between embracing them and jumping violently away from them. The visceral artist in him conflicts with the moralist, and this clash makes his detractors (and sometimes even his fans) livid.”
But Ferrara, I wrote, seems to work “...more from his rational mind and less from his gut. Like Scorsese, his images are crude, kinetic and sometimes staggeringly beautiful, but his attitude toward them is more level-headed. He doesn’t deal with sin and salvation, but with the idea of sin and salvation. Watching ’Bad Lieutenant.,’ you find yourself keeping a mental tally of the protagonist’s offenses. Ferrara’s meticulous account of the lieutenant’s descent into degradation, coupled with the film’s distancing style—long, long takes; lots of medium shots; eerie silence punctuated by apocalyptic bursts of pop music—grants you a privileged, even godlike perspective.” Ferrara’s subject: a man’s systematic self-destruction and partial redemption.
Which brings us to Keitel. Novelist and essayist Steve Erickson wrote in a rave review of “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” that one of the clearest measures of a committed artist was how willing he or she was to risk looking ridiculous. By that admittedly reductive yardstick, Keitel’s performance is one of the most committed in movie history, so naked, in many senses of the word, that you can barely look at the screen. Yet miraculously, after two decades of always-a-scene-stealer, rarely-a-leading-man, the one-two punch of this film and Keitel’s revelatory romantic lead in “The Piano” (he showed his penis in both!) finally made him a star. Or maybe the phrase is anti-star: a leading man with no fear, no shame and, it seemed, no limits. From 1993 onward, he stopped being underrated and became impossible to escape—a self-made lumpenprole icon, an American Gérard Depardieu. More than any of Keitel’s early ’90s career-reinvention projects—more than “Bugsy,” “Thelma & Louise,” even “Reservoir Dogs”—“Bad Lieutenant” cemented this shift.
Deeply Catholic filmmaker that he is, Ferrara’s films often depict autonomous individuals getting lost in their own appetites, abasing themselves or being figuratively or literally destroyed (and often actively participating in that destruction). Yet this descent into hell is never just a sadomasochistic exercise, because the soul transcends the flesh. No matter what Ferrara’s characters do to themselves or others, a spiritual flame never stops flickering.
Keitel’s performance embodies Ferrara’s preoccupations and more importantly, his temperament, which is more coolly analytical than his material might suggest. In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and lesser actor, this story could have been another self-indulgent exercise in Indie Edginess—the kind of movie that confirms its artsy bona fides by making every other scene a big Oscar clip setpiece and rubbing your face in blood and shit every five minutes. “Bad Lieutenant.” has many such moments—when you remember the film, there’s a good chance you picture the protagonist staggering around a nasty apartment, drunk and naked, weeping like a lost child, or seeing the apparition of Jesus in church and calling him a rat fuck. But upon repeat viewings, the lieutenant’s self-awareness—his complicity in the destruction of his last shreds of dignity—becomes more clear. As I wrote in my original review, “Like Ferrara, Keitel’s Lieutenant is interested in the abstract idea of corruption even as he wallows in it. Sometimes, when he’s shooting up, cavorting with whores or peering at his cute kids as if they’re alien beings, you sense something more than mere debasement: excitement at the idea that he’s pushing the frontiers of evil, and repulsion at the realization that he’s excited.”
This essay was written for the Abel Ferrara Blog-a-Thon, coordinated by fellow film blogger Girish Shambu. For a complete lineup of Ferrara-related essays, click here and scroll down.