Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a film about your average cop: a corrupt headcase with a gun who was born to be a criminal, but turned out to be a late developer. If you like James McAvoy in Filth, you’ll love Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant. This cop knows how to mix his drugs. He’s also good at mixing his drug taking with a lot of stealing, drug dealing, screaming, whoring, and hard drinking. He does have some problems with gambling, though.
Ferrara is always willing to go to dark places, and in Harvey Keitel he found an actor who could go all the way. This NC-17 B-flick full of drugs, degeneracy, wild nihilism, suicidal apathy, horrific rape, and total self destruction is such a beautiful train wreck to watch that even Roger Ebert thinks it’s wonderful. But it’s not the subject matter that makes the film: it’s Harvey Keitel. The parallels to Jon S. Baird’s Filth (2013) are striking, specifically James McAvoy’s reach-out-and-choke-the-audience performance.
Harvey Keitel plays the titular and unnamed Bad Lieutenant, the baddest of bad cops, who makes McAvoy’s Filth corruption seem like schoolboy pranks. Keitel pulls the entire film up from its b-movie vibe. The cinematography is so bad it makes shot/reverse shot look nouvelle vague. But it doesn’t make any difference at all while you’re watching it. The visceral shock of Keitel’s acting makes everything else peripheral. See the stills? They don’t come close to matching the intensity of the performance at 24 frames per second. Rogert Ebert wrote, “Harvey Keitel plays this man with such uncompromised honesty that the performance can only be called courageous…” That’s a delicate way to put it. It’s better described as a performance of beautiful insanity.
Gambling his life away, lying, conning, thieving, stealing evidence, selling drugs, robbing criminals, sexually assaulting teenagers, snorting cocaine, smoking crack, smoking heroin, shooting heroin, shooting at people, shooting at car radios, and drinking to oblivion in a naked stupor while whoring with bondage hookers: this Bad Lieutenant is far too busy tearing his world apart to photocopy an image of his phallus just to pull the department secretary.
Now, if you’re here for the existential nihilism like me, I have to warn you: it’s not really the elusive nihilist film you’ve been searching for, because like most screen nihilists, this Bad Lieutenant comes with a twist. Unlike most filmmakers who deal with nihilistic characters, however, Ferrara’s lens never really makes judgments. The camera just watches. And this is one hell of a spectacle.
If you want to see a more phillosophical brand of nihilism in action, check out Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973), whose lens is somewhat judgmental but leaves things open to interpretation. Mike Hodges’ Get Carter (1971) glorifies Michael Caine’s nihilist antihero. Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993) is closer to the philosophical mark, and David Thewlis is as mesmerizing as Keitel. Finally, another worthy Ferrara film is King of New York (1990) with Christopher Walken as gangster antihero.
Ferrara is currently filming Pasolini starring Willem Dafoe as the infamous Italian poet, critic and filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, in a portrayal of his final days leading up to his mysterious murder. Let’s hope that film gets released because if there ever was a great cinephile biopic in the making, it’s a story about Pasolini.