Thursday, December 11, 2008

Film Review - "Bad Lieutenant" (1992)

Bad Lieutenant
Abel Ferrara
This is just one of those movies – not mainstream by any stretch of the imagination, and as such, not really well-known, but having almost universal acclaim from pretty much everyone who saw it, cynical nerds and revered critics alike. It’s higher up on the class hierarchy than a cult film, but not high enough to get a decent DVD release or stay out of the $5 bargain bin. It’s just stuck floating in that purgatory where psychology/philosophy/sociology geeks and intensely depressed people adore it, the Hollywood Machine ignores it, and whenever someone from the general moviegoing public happens to stumble upon it, they are bored, offended and/or frightened beyond measure, leaving them to attack fans of the film as being freaks. Yes… Those types of movies.
Welcome to Bad Lieutenant. The titular character is a real piece of shit. He steals evidence (drugs) to use and/or sell on the streets, he makes absurd wagers on sports games with shady characters despite repeated warnings from others of the very tangible threat it poses to his wife and young children, he takes sexual favors from teenaged girls in exchange for looking the other way – in other words, he’s a bad, bad lieutenant. Under all this scumfuckery, however, beats the heart of a lonely, sad man who knows he’s a bastard and desperately wants to redeem himself. He gets a chance when he takes on a case involving a young nun being viciously raped and beaten by two teenagers. He sets out for justice, hoping to wash his soul clean in the eyes of God, or at the very least, himself.
There are many things to this film, some of which don’t immediately make themselves apparent. For one, there is very, very little music in the film. We occasionally hear some music coming from televisions or radios within the context of the film, but they are part of the city ambience that haunts every second of the film. We do get some external background music in two or three scenes, but if I’m remembering correctly, at least one of them is a dream sequence, so that somewhat excuses it. Another important thing is the overall gritty, grimy feel of the film, very similar to Taxi Driver. Unlike Taxi Driver, however, this film stays pretty much in a constant state of misery and anguish, even during and after the so-called ‘redemption’ of the protagonist. It’s a sense of cruel irony, adding to the soul-crushing atmosphere of sadness that drags itself through the entire film like a half-dead animal.
Harvey Keitel gives the performance of his life here, and it’s a crime that he didn’t win some kind of award recognizing the sheer agony that he fills the character with.
Practically every aspect of this film is, in my eyes, perfect. To describe it as to-the-point as possible, it’s a highly disturbing melodrama and deep character study, and in that respect it is very similar to another favorite, Clean, Shaven. Just be warned that you should probably be depressed and/or horribly bitter when you watch this – it will help you understand the film better, and it’s better to go into the movie feeling depressed than to be made depressed by the movie, amirite?
RATING: 10/10


  1. "Unlike Taxi Driver, however, this film stays pretty much in a constant state of misery and anguish, even during and after the so-called ‘redemption’ of the protagonist."

    Hmm. Just out of curiosity, why would you say that "Taxi Driver" wasn't in a constant state of misery and anguish? Do you say that because you believe the ending where Bickle is lauded as a hero for saving Iris was real?

    Or do you subscribe to the theory that it was all in Travis Bickle's head as he was dying?

    On "Bad Lieutenant": I know my folks have seen it, now I want to. And I'm also wondering if my grandpa has seen it, as well. He mentioned once that he liked Harvey Keitel films. I ended up recommending some Tim Roth movies to him back when I was in my mid-teens or so.

  2. I'm not completely sure about the ending of "Taxi Driver", but either way, it gives us some relief from the oppressive pain that's in pretty much the whole rest of the movie. Likewise with some other scenes, such as his bonding with Iris. In "Bad Lieutenant", there's no relief. No escape.

  3. Good point; I hadn't thought of it like that. I'm gonna have to rent "Taxi Driver" from the school library and watch it again. That was a damn good movie.

    BTW, have you seen an early film of Scorsese's called "Mean Streets"? It also has Harvey Keitel and Robert De Niro, and is pretty interesting.