Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant takes its audience on a harrowing and trippy journey into the unhinged and depraved mind of its lead character. The title explains everything. Harvey Keitel plays a bad cop; as bad as they come. Despite learning many disturbing things about him, we never learn this cop’s name. The lieutenant scurries around his city like the rats in the sewers below. He takes advantage of both criminals and law-abiding citizens. He bends the law to satisfy his addictions and fantasises, and the film’s style mirrors the character’s crumbling state of mind. Dependent on a startling mixture of drugs and crippled by his gambling problem, our cop is constantly sinking – barely functioning in a corrupt society that he himself fuels and encourages. Bad Lieutenant is all about atmosphere and a strong sense of villainy. Plot takes a back seat in a film too brash and bonkers to be defined as part of any specific film genre. There is much to be admired (and feared) in Bad Lieutenant but it is Harvey Keitel’s unquestionable performance that remains the most remarkable feat achieved by this hallucinative masterpiece.
Keitel’s roles are always risky and unexpected. He is an actor on the hunt for a challenge, facing such challenges with a great defiance. The fire in his belly is blatant in Bad Lieutenant; a film so mad and ambitious that it stretches this actor in new and exciting ways – projecting his impressive range of abilities. The film is a blend of noisy, aggressive scenes, filled with chatter and action, and silent, long, still scenes of equal turmoil. The loud and the soft complement one another – emphasising some of the film’s most harrowing moments. One scene never seems to end. As we watch the twisted cop abuse his authority by assaulting two young girls with only his words, we are struck by an immediate reaction of both repulsion and captivation. Ferrara’s film still contains as much rebellion and madness as his earlier work, such as The Driller Killer, and the film starts to lose its own grasp on reality along with its protagonist. Yet, there is something masterful about Bad Lieutenant and its courage to venture into the psyche of an addict, meeting his many demons along the way. The final half of the movie focuses on religion as our main character begins to ponder redemption, curious if it is achievable for an individual as sordid and guilty as himself. The lieutenant is a loner – his only companionship present in the form of another addict with whom he repeatedly returns to. This trust between two drug addicts adds greatly to the power of Bad Lieutenant – demonstrating how addiction can control, transform and isolate.
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