Ten Words or Less Review: Harvey Keitel does drugs. Lots and lots of drugs.
Sipping on a bottle of booze, snorting some coke, freebasing heroin, shooting heroin, smoking crack, spending time with hookers and it’s only lunch time. This is the average day of the unnamed Lieutenant. 1992’s independent shocker “Bad Lieutenant” features Harvey Keitel as a rampant New York officer of the law whose sole purpose is to recklessly flaunt his power and consume as many narcotics as humanly possible. He’s an officer on a singular but enigmatic course of unrivaled self destruction.
With its constant grimness and low side of life point-of-view, “Bad Lieutenant” was seen as an icon of early 90’s independent cinema. The movie has an unrepentant attitude towards Keitel’s loathsome cop. Directed almost gorilla style Abel Ferrara, “Lieutenant” is as opposite to typical Hollywood fair as one can achieve. Nothing about any of this is romanticized or made upbeat for the sake of appeasing an audience. The movie’s insistence on exploring this depraved individual defines it, but at the same time its unwillingness to see anything besides Keitel’s corrupt acts makes it a largely one dimensional experience. Keitel’s performance may be a fearless piece of work, but the story spends a great deal of time requiring very little of him besides doing lots of drugs.
By the 9th time we watch Keitel snort blow or pound down a bottle of hooch hidden in his pocket, we’re left wondering if any point to all this will emerge. Keitel’s character more than lacks a name, he lacks a life outside of his wicked acts. We know he has kids and a family, but rarely does the movie, or even the character, acknowledge them or explore what has brought him to this vile crossroads. Only in the last movements of the movie does a deeper, repentant character begin to emerge. Struggling, ignoring, his work with the case of a raped nun, Keitel’s Lieutenant reaches rock bottom and begs the nun for the names of her attackers so he can dispatch them. But she’s forgiven them. She has no desire to see them punished. No sense of retribution is contained within her. In her ultimate act of forgiveness she’s rendered him powerless, his desire to do something vengeful and seemingly right in his eyes is taken away. Stripped of ability to do anything, he has a religious epiphany and begs a materialized Christ to forgive him for his weakness and depravity. He’s shown the way to the nun’s rapist, but he follows the nun’s example and sets them free. This finale is the one place in the movie that feels like a revelation of something more than just shock. “Lieutenant” may lapse into heavy handed symbolism in these scenes, but they wake the character, and the film, out of a drug fueled stupor from which it rarely fails to escape.
The final conclusion of “Bad Lieutenant” will be clear to any well versed viewer of films like this, but as more time passes the more I feel endings such as these, once seen as fierce, are in their own independent minded way, lazy. If Hollywood productions must always end with a forced sense of uplift, movies like “Bad Lieutenant” must always end with a sense of downbeat finality. It’s as pre-ordained by its style and setting as the foregone conclusions which entail heroes and heroines running off into the sunset. An uplifting ending isn’t necessary, or even appropriate, but what’s here lacks imagination. What passed for hard hitting in 1992 has now become commonplace.
Beyond its conclusion “Bad Lieutenant” hasn’t aged well for several reasons. So many troubled, wicked and more interesting cops have come to populate TV and movies in the subsequent years. The once daring nature of this production has gotten a little lost. Ferrara and Keitel deserve credit for being uncompromising in their presentation of a wretched soul, but the movie feels handicapped by its limited view and structure. While it may cling onto its pioneering reputation in certain circles, other storytellers have moved past this once strong achievement, going on to create deeper tales of cops lost in the wilderness of their impossible and destructive lives.