'Bad Lieutenant' (1992) DVD Review/Analysis
March 1, 2009 § Leave a comment
Harvey Keitel stars as the eponymous protagonist of the title: a man who is just about ready to self-destruct. He uses his power as an officer of the law to bully and harass the guilty – as well as the innocent – in order to fuel his various drug and gambling addictions. We don’t know what has lead him to this place, why he is there or anything much about him. All we are seeing is a man going further and further, deeper and deeper, into a vice-ridden hell. And hell is an appropriate term – as we shall see later.
***There will be major spoilers in this review***
As his gambling debts spiral out of control, and his drug habits start to catch up with him, we see the The Lieutenant more desperate than ever. It is with the arrival of a new case – the rape and assault of a nun – that The Lieutenant is finally forced to look at himself, re-examine his life and possibly realise some kind of salvation.
This is a tour de force performance from Keitel. As the character, he exposes himself completely – both physically and mentally – to the audience, and with no reservations. Many of the scenes in the film are shocking and hard to watch. It was with trepidation that I decided to watch the film a second time round, the first time having left an impression in me for days. However, these should all be seen as good signs. It is because the director has imbued the film with an uncompromising sense of authenticity that the film is so disturbing. It is only because we perceive the truth between the frames of the film that it feels sinister, frightening and ultimately tragic.
Mark Kermode describes the film as “a powerful tale of redemptive Catholicism.” In this, he is absolutely correct. In the very first scene as we see The Lieutenant dropping his kids off at school, only to see him a few seconds later indulging in the magic white powder, while a small crucifix hangs, swinging, from his rear-view mirror. This sets the tone for the whole movie. The moral spectre of Christianity hangs over The Lieutenant, and the whole movie, just as that very crucifix does.
Ferrera does an excellent job in demonstrating The Lieutenant’s twisted and ugly life through various directorial techniques, yet he is never intrusive in how he films; he wisely leaves the bulk of the film on Keitel’s shoulders. This is not like Requiem of a Dream, or anything like that, where the director is trying to convey a detailed sense of being intoxicated. We are never felt to feel what he feels; we are always the dispassionate observer, ever watching and judging.
This a character-centric film; it is about someone who has gone so far past the point of no return, that he can’t come back. For him, redemption is inconceivable. At a pivotal moment in the film he cries out “I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve done so many bad things.” It makes you wonder what kind of a man this was – before all the drugs and the alcohol and the gambling took hold.
In the end, The Lieutenant does redeem himself and find salvation, but he does so through an unusual act of – what some might describe as – misguided kindness. The Lieutenant finds the men who raped the nun and he lets them go – in accordance with the nun’s wishes, and against his better judgement. It is at this time in which The Lieutenant is so far into debt that the reward money from capturing these guys might be the only way of saving his skin. Instead of grasping hold of the only thread he has left for survival, he instead courageously throws it away, giving these rapists what he perceives as a second chance.
From a means/ends point of view, he must have done the wrong thing. By allowing these criminals to be set free, he lets them loose, allowing them to perpetuate further crimes. However in his conversation with the nun, she says that she forgives the men who raped her, and apparently, manages to convince him to do the same. The idea here is that it is not the consequences which dictate the morality of an action, but the virtuousness to be found in the very essence of the act itself – a very Christian, perhaps ever Aristotelian, ethic.
He gives these young men clemency, and by doing so achieves salvation in one way, while he signs his own death warrant in another. As he takes these guys to the bus terminal so they can escape, he makes it clear just how much he hates them and how much he is disgusted by what they’ve done. All of this: it is The Lieutenant berating himself, judging himself and giving himself the second chance he wishes for. This is his fantasy, and for one moment he fulfills it and is redeemed. But as he leaves the terminal, the reality is that he knows there is no saving him, and that there is no way out for him. It’s gone too far; the world will not absolve him and he cannot fully absolve himself. The Lieutenant accepts his weak nature and his inevitable death; he gives up on life. And this is what makes for a very sombre and affecting ending.
Bad Lieutenant isn’t an ‘enjoyable’ film in the conventional sense, nor does it pompously declare itself an ‘important’ film, professing to teach us some kind of moral lesson. Bad Lieutenant is, however, a great piece of art. It gives us an insight into some aspect of the human condition, without pontificating over it. It does not tell us what to think, or whether The Liuetenant made the right or wrong decisions; it pulls out what is wretched about human beings and throws it at you: “Here! Take a good look at what humanity can be. Make your own judgements.”