Bad Lieutenant (1992)


USA; Abel Ferrara

Mature Audiences – Sexual Violence; Strong Sexual Content; Pervasive Drug Use; Language

A depraved New York cop (Harvey Keitel) is forced to reassess his chaotic life when investigating the rape of a young nun. He first sets out to find the culprits for the consistent financial reward, but as the scabrous details of the case are unveiled, even he is repulsed by the rapists’ brutality and sadism. Yet the nun refuses to incriminate the attackers, which she knew. Staggering in the streets in a state of mental near-palsy from the drug and alcohol abuse, the nameless lieutenant slowly awakes to other realities than cheap sex, drugs and gambling as he realized that something greater than his selfish and often cruel interests is in motion.

Bad Lieutenant is a hard movie to love, yet it is impossible not to respect at times its temerity. But what could have made history remains a minor entry. Ferrara has, in too many respects, succumbed to the pitfalls of the bad cop thriller. The ensemble revels in its sleazy worldview, and the redemption of its tortured protagonist feels just like another crime. Keitel is made sympathetic simply by pitting him against far worse individuals – an approach that works, but feels criminally easy to pull off. What is more, the first half drags, struggling to find its pace amidst barely connected sequences of debauchery. 

But it does find it, eventually. When the director lets his leading man dictate the pace, the film veers towards an unpeeling, slow-burning character study. Keitel delivers a hypnotic and visceral performance, baring himself in every conceivable way. Drifting in a heartbeat between stunned torpor, lurid enthusiasm and crazed hypersensitivity, his miserable, nameless lieutenant is undoubtedly among the most fragile and volatile anti-heroes in the pantheon of great movie sociopaths.

For all its flaws, Bad Lieutenant is an uncompromising moviegoing experience but also a moral test. Maybe precisely because it utterly fails to deliver the expected – and, so engulfing is the debauchery, stringently needed – satisfactory ethical resolution, it prompts its audiences to reflect on the fate of this soul swallowed by depravity,  frontally facing one man's own personal hell . You have been warned…

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