Bad Lieutenant is ninety-six minutes because there’s no way you could stand it being any longer. It’s a horrible film, and frequently hard to watch. It’s not a descent into hell; descents have forward momentum. If you’re descending into hell you can envision ascending out if it. But in Bad Lieutenant, you’re already in hell. You’re so trapped that you wonder if hell is all that’s ever existed.
If I described the plot of Bad Lieutenant, it sounds like classic noir. Not completely – the sin and vice that would have been left implicit is rendered in full detail – but almost. Harvey Keitel plays the (unnamed) bad lieutenant, all hard liquor and harder drugs, and a hardened exterior unaffected by the crimes he investigates. He’s the cynical antihero, alienated, disaffected and corrupt. He’s hardboiled. He makes bets on a baseball match at the scene of a double murder.
Then a nun is gang-raped on the altar. The sequence is lit in red, like the fires of hell, and we see Christ on the cross, his screams of agony mixing with the young nun’s. The bad lieutenant is on the case. You imagine that he’ll devote himself to solving it, maybe going too far and bending the rules, stumbling towards some kind of redemption. That’s the plot Bad Lieutenant sets up, but doesn’t set in motion. It’s driven by the bad lieutenant himself – pulled in strange, painful directions – and he’s not a good enough person to be that kind of bad cop. He is, as Desson Howe described him in the Washington Post, just “a notch nicer than Satan.”
Harvey Keitel just might be the most underrated actor alive, and Bad Lieutenant is an unquestionable career highlight. Keitel’s performance is fearless, vulnerable and raw. Where traditional movie characters fit into certain predetermined shapes, Keitel’s bad lieutenant is a collection of nerve endings, a live heart beating in your fist, both less than human and the most human thing you’ve ever encountered. You’re with him every scene, without reprieve.
Bad Lieutenant is very much a neo-noir, as amorphous as that genre can be: it takes the familiar tropes and archetypes of noir and pulls at their seams, warping them into unfamiliar shapes. But it is also a child of two parents: Italian neorealism and exploitation movies.
It has a seedy, scummy vision of New York, a cousin to the poverty-stricken Italian neorealist cities. Even though the lieutenant himself has a suburban, comfortably middle-class home – we see him wake up on the couch in the middle of the day – all the action takes place in derelict urban settings, in his drug dealers’ apartment buildings and red-lit bars and at crime scenes.
Italian neorealist films often have scenes of characters performing mundane activities, and Bad Lieutenant shoots what are on paper lurid events in the same style. Many of the scenes take place in real time, playing out in long, drawn-out takes without any flashy camerawork. There’s an entirely still wide shot of the bad lieutenant and a woman (Zoë Lund, who co-wrote the film with Abel Ferrera) freebasing heroin. It’s two minutes, and it feels like forever. Like Maria in Umberto D waking up, going to the kitchen and doing some inane tasks, it feels like the in-between stuff of life, when nothing “important” is happening, even though we’re literally watching a guy take heroin. It’s nowhere close to the lieutenant’s worst behaviour, but it’s uncomfortable to watch, because you feel trapped. The whole film is like that: you want to turn away, you want the camera to turn away for you.
But Bad Lieutenant is also, right in its DNA, a sleazy piece of trash. Ferrera cut his teeth making exploitation movies. His directorial debut was literally porn – 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy – and he and Lund had previously collaborated on the rape-revenge movie Ms .45. Bad Lieutenant is of a piece with that tradition, not a breakaway from it. It’s sordid and extreme and has the loose feel of a film where the producer said you can do whatever you want, as long as there’s this precise number of sex scenes. The central plot hinges on the rape of a nun, which a common enough exploitation trope to practically constitute a genre. It doesn’t just have scenes of gratuitous sex, violence, and drug use, it is scenes of gratuitous sex, violence, and drug use. It was given an NC-17 rating in the US, and had to be recut so Blockbuster would carry it. It was banned in Ireland on release, and then banned again in 2003 for home video. “The viewing of it would tend,” the prohibition notice read, “by reason of the inclusion in it of obscene or indecent matter, to deprave or corrupt persons who might view it.”
And it’s a deeply, passionately religious film. The lieutenant is Catholic, although obviously very bad at it. The whole thing is saturated in Catholic imagery, in rosary beads and crucifixes and statues of Mary. At its heart, it wrangles – earnestly, desperately, manically – with Christian themes: what does it mean to forgive as Christ forgives? What does it mean to be redeemed as Christ redeems? The sensationalist exploitation stuff and the religious stuff should be incompatible, or at least oppositional and in tension. But each reveals the other.
The film opens with the lieutenant driving his sons to school. He scolds them for missing the bus and says they should tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom if she’s hogging it. After he drops them off, he snorts some cocaine in the car. The angle of the shot has changed, and as he snorts the coke, we see the rosary beads hanging from his rear-view mirror, out of focus but in the foreground. It’s a microcosm of the whole film: the profane and the sacred, tied together on screen.
In Robert Bresson’s The Diary of a Country Priest, the priest says that the desire to pray is a form of prayer. This is the level most stories about not-really-lapsed bad Catholics take place, where the character believes in God but doubts his love. The lieutenant is another layer of abstraction out: a desire for the desire. It’s not that he can’t resist the temptation to sin, because that would imply that he tries to resist. He just sins and sins and sins and he loves it and it’s killing him. His soul is rotting away.
“Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others,” Lund tells the lieutenant. She’s injected heroin into his arm, and he’s slowly slumping over in his chair as she stands just out of frame. “We got to eat away at ourselves. We got to eat our legs, so we got the energy to walk. We got to come so we can go. We got to suck ourselves off. We got to eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left but appetite.”
That’s the lieutenant: nothing left but appetite. But then, her speech abruptly turns into a kind of gutter sermon: “We give and give, and give crazy. You have to give to make sense – ain’t worth it. Jesus said 70 times 7. No one wiII ever understand why – why you did it. They’II just forget about you tomorrow, but you got to do it.” When she mentions Jesus, it cuts to a shot of him on the cross, similar to the one we saw during the nun’s rape. Instead of screaming, he’s barely conscious, and a drop of spit dangles from his lip. Another cut, and the spit “falls” onto the floor of the church. The nun prostrates herself in front of a large crucifix, her entire body hidden in her habit but for her pale hand clutching rosary beads.
The nun knows the boys who raped her, but she refuses to name them. “Listen to me, Sister… The other cops will just put these guys through the system. They’re juveniles, they’ll walk, get it?” the lieutenant tells her, “But I’ll beat the system and do justice. Real justice. For you.” He imagines the redemption bad cops are supposed to get in movies: that by bending the rules, by going too far, to get the bad guys whatever it takes, he will be an agent of “real justice”. He will be just.
But she has already forgiven her rapists. The lieutenant can’t accept this. He immediately rejects it out of hand – “Come on, lady. These guys put out cigarette butts on your… Get with the program. How could you – how could you forgive these motherfu—these, these guys?” – before expressing disbelief that she could possibly have forgiven them: “Deep down inside, don’t you want them to pay for what they did to you? Don’t you want this crime revenged?” The nun’s voice is soft and quiet when she repeats, “I’ve forgiven them.”
The lieutenant tells her she has no right to forgive them. “You’re not the only woman in the world… Your forgiveness will leave blood in its wake,” he says, “What if these guys do this to other nuns? […] Do you have the right to let these boys go free? Can you bear the burden, Sister?”
It isn’t – can’t be – that he’s genuinely concerned about sex offenders on the streets. Earlier in the film, he pulls over two teenage girls who took their father’s car out without permission to go to a party. He uses the threat of arrest to force one of the girls to show him her ass and the other to mime performing oral sex, while he watches and masturbates. He doesn’t touch the girls at all, but it’s one of the most gruesome scenes of sexual violence I’ve seen on screen. It lasts an excruciating eight minutes.
One of the girls wears a ring with a large cross on it, aligning them both with the nun and with Christ. In an interview with Manohla Dargis, Ferrera talks about a nun being raped in Spanish Harlem in 1982, and how “every cop in New York was after these guys, they caught them in ten minutes,” and meanwhile, “some 13-year-old that’s getting raped right now in the Bronx someplace, no one gives a shit about her.” Dargis says it’s because the nun belongs to the Church. “Everyone belongs to the Church. If you really believe it,” Ferrera says. If whatever you do to the least of us, you do to Christ, then what the lieutenant does to those girls, he does to Christ too. Bad Lieutenant rejects the abstraction of faith, where the sacred is over there somewhere, self-contained. Everyone belongs to the Church, if you really believe it.
Some critics see the lieutenant as the film’s darkly twisted Christ figure, going through his own Passion, but it’s the nun who is tied to Jesus, both visually and narratively. And she forgives as he forgives. On the cross, Jesus asked God to forgive his crucifiers, and the nun forgives her rapists.
The reason the lieutenant is repulsed by this is because if she forgives those boys, he could be forgiven. He recoils in horror from the possibility of his own redemption. He doesn’t deserve to be forgiven, and neither do the boys. But for the nun, and by extension Christ, it isn’t about deserving. Christian charity, GK Chesterton wrote, is “pardoning unpardonable acts, or loving unlovable people.” The lieutenant shrinks from the nun’s/Christ’s forgiveness, and from their love. It is unbearable. Redemption through vigilante justice would be easy by comparison.
The nun tells him he should pray. He reaches to touch her rosary beads and she gives them to him. When she’s gone, he doubles over on the floor of the church, wailing in pain. Keitel cries like nobody in the business: uncontrollable, raw, painful, unapologetically hideous and absolutely huge. It’s like his heart’s been cleaved in two. And then, in the aisle where the nun has just left, he sees Jesus. He looks as he does on the cross – the crown of thorns, the nails in his hands and feet, the bleeding wound where the spear pierced his side – but he’s standing, arms at his side. It could be an apparition; it could be a drug-fuelled hallucination. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
He screams at Jesus, calling him a “rat fuck” and demanding he say something. “You fucking stand there, and you want me to do every fucking thing?” he yells at the top of his lungs, “Where were you? Where the fuck were you?”
He’s crying and screaming and Jesus is just standing there. And then the lieutenant lets out another wail of pain, and starts apologising. “l’m sorry! l’m so sorry. l’m sorry. l did so many bad things!” he says, and Keitel’s performance is so intense that you can barely watch, “l’m sorry. l tried to do…l tried to do the right thing, but l’m weak. l’m too fucking weak! l need you to help me. Help me!” It’s transformative, but not enough; he’s still asking Christ to do the work. And then: “Forgive me.” He crawls towards Jesus, repeating, “Forgive me, please. Forgive me, Father.”
He kisses his foot. When he looks up it’s not Christ, but an old woman.
The woman is holding the chalice that was stolen from the church by the rapists. It was pawned at her husband’s shop, and with her help, the lieutenant tracks the rapists down to a crack den. He holds them at gunpoint, cuffs them, and smokes crack with them while they watch the end of the Mets game. He puts them in his car, and while he drives, he sticks his gun in their faces, and tells them how awful they are. But he keeps saying that the nun forgives them, repeats it almost compulsively, with a mixture of distaste and awe:
You raped a holy thing. You destroyed that young girl, and she forgives you. You hear that? She forgives you! You fucking heroes. You like holding her down and shoving your dick into her while she couldn’t do nothing about it? […] l’d like to blow your fucking face apart. You fucking scumbags. And she forgives you. How could she forgive that? How could she forgive you slimy little bastards? How could she forgive a thing like that?
You think he’s either going to take them to the police station or kill them. But instead, he takes them to the bus terminal. He gives them 30,000 dollars in a cigar box, decorated with a cross and pictures of Mary, and tells them their life “ain’t worth shit in this town”. As the bus pulls off, he screams and cries. Grace is painful. It is painful because it is transformative.
He owed that money to his bookie. He leaves the bus terminal, and when he pulls up, he gets shot.
It’s hard to take. Most redemption narratives focus on having a bad character do unambiguous, universally accepted good, in the mould of Scrooge becoming a generous, Christmas-loving guy who no longer abuses his employees in A Christmas Carol. Often this redeeming act of goodness is specifically retribution against the bad guys, like when Darth Vader kills the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. But Bad Lieutenant redeems the lieutenant in a way that forces you to examine the value of retribution. I don’t think this is in any way to play down the horror of the boys’ crimes – the severity of their crimes is part of the point.
“The Bad Lieutenant’s death wasn’t a death, his death was a sacrifice. He would have been the front page of the New York Post, the hero cop–and he gave all that up,” Ferrera told Dargis, “Because he knew he’d found and understood what forgiveness was about. He’s on his knees in front of Jesus Christ saying ‘I am sorry.’ He is now at the point the nun’s at, or at least on the same road, whether he’s at tollbooth 10 and she’s down at 38.”
Christ told the woman who was going to be stoned to death, “Now go and sin no more,” and when the lieutenant does the same, the hardened sinner is, for a moment, Christ-like. He forgives the unforgiveable. He loves the unlovable.