– by David Morgan-Brown
Abel Ferrara is perhaps the ultimate cult filmmaker. He heavily dislikes studio interference, he’s not concerned about making money or winning awards, and he makes the films exactly as he likes, with little regard for what audiences or critics may think. Due to this, his films have recieved mixed reactions; being greatly attacked by some, and admired and beloved by others. Bad Lieutenant is one such film, a piece of work with such lurid content and a hardly likeable main character. Some may call this film transcendent and cathartic, some may call it a disgusting piece of trash. Ferrara seems to be content with this division in his audience.
The film created such attention there was even a semi-remake by Werner Herzog in 2009, with Nicholas Cage brilliantly cast in the title role. This character was a coke-snorting, whore-humping, iguana-hallucinating cop, though compared to the 1992 original by Abel Ferrara with Harvey Keitel in the uniformed position, he’s as civilised, straight-minded, and well-mannered as a cop can get.
The centrepiece of this film and the main ingredient that makes it work is Harvey Keitel as the nameless lieutenant. He starts off in the film as a man on the very edge of total self-annihilation, and goes further down from there.
This film is a journey of the lieutenant’s downward spiral into the absolute pits of degradation, all the while spiritually tested by the case of a raped nun he has been assigned to. The denouement of this film that finally cuts off the depravities of this character is as purposefully problematic as it is enigmatic. There are sure to be many different opinions on his decision, a sacrifice that questions the notions of forgiveness, as well as invoke many curiosities of this character’s motivations. It may not have been what was right, but it fits like a glove in this tortured character arc and perfectly interweaves the paper-weight story and powerful themes together by the time of the film’s stomach-dropping finale. Keitel, like Ferrara, is an actor who’s not in it to please everyone. He spends most of the film either smoking crack or scrunching up his face in a pitiful cry, and it’s one of the best male performances of any ‘90s film. The actor was going through some difficult personal problems during production, mainly related to his divorce, and his monumental frustrations and existential pains show in this film. There are many long and static shots of him, presenting himself in a very naked performance (emotionally and literally), which is often so dauntingly painful to watch, the only natural reaction is laughter.
As with any great character study, the content of this film is as depraved as the character it is studying, and it is all the more successful for it. Ferrara is a filmmaker who pushes the boundaries of what content goes up on screen and in what dramatic context it’s in, but he’s not in it for the shock value. He is telling a painful story in a painful manner, and he had an excellently vulnerable actor to give the performance of his miserable life.