More movies- Bad Lieutenant
^burning the midnight foil with a young Harvey Kietel
“I said it was a SEMINAL WORK… stop giggling, oh, I amuse you? Like I’m some clown here to put on make-up for you?” -some awesome film professor
Abel Ferrara’s 1992 cop story Bad Lieutenant is innovative and thoughtful on many levels, but lacks a few things important to a good movie. The protagonist is a self-loathing anti-hero who works as a cop but doesn’t believe in law or any moral code. This central character element is interesting as a starting point, but too much time is spent dwelling on it. Like a Scorsese flick, the movie blends artfully crafted shots so seamlessly with modern Hollywood conventional ones that we could easily miss the finer points of it’s craftsmanship. When the nun is shown, she is always shot in dreamy, ethereal chiaroscuro lighting. Our main protagonist is shown in unapolageticly realist shots, as he loses money, talks to himself, flaunts and abuses his power, drives around doing way too much hard drugs, and ultimately loses his cool. The way violence and universal humanity is depicted is interesting, and very unusual. One of the underlying messages of this film is that people are people, and their worth is not dependant on their beliefs or actions. The tender humanism underlies the American realist style, which in turn underlies the anti-human brutality. Because of this layering, and akward lack of development, the humanism is easy to miss. The characters are simple and straight forward; static, but interesting. Another way the movie misses the mark is in it’s inability to support important elements of the storyline. Why is he self destructing? Why does he attempt to emulate the crime victim’s universal compassion? Has he always been a drug addict and hard drinker, or is he attempting to numb himself to some inner conflict? These questions are not answered, and they matter to the story. The appearance of Catholic Trauma is also Scorsesesque, but isn’t set up well enough to play a large part in the story.
Harvey Keitel has a face that is interesting to watch, and he delivers lines convincingly, but the film leans too heavily on his likeability, and asks too much from him as an actor. When nothing is happening with the story, we are expected to watch him drive around getting trashed, while his gambling debts pile up dangerously. Critics have said that near the end of the tale, he is having an internal Christian morality conflict but it looked to me like he just lost his cool from buckets of hard drugs.
The film grossed over two million, but wasn’t marketed aggressively overseas. It’s estimated cost was around a million. These figures would be good for an indie, but not so good for a mainstream Hollywood film. The Rating Board gave it an NC-17 rating, probably for the explicit scenes of drug use, but the realist style does nothing to make his indulgences look like fun. It is uncertain how much this rating may have hurt the film.
One of the shocking things about this film is it’s tasteful depiction of violence. Violence is normally a main plot device in these kinds of movies, but Ferrara’s realist way of showing criminal brutality is not the kind we are used to. One major plot element involves a violent rape of a nun. We are showed a bit of the crime scene as the cops see it, and some trauma on the face of the victim, but no shocking depictions of the deplorable act. The perpetrators of the crime don’t seem scary or sociopathic when we see them. They seem more like scared young drug addicts, too dumb to understand what they’ve done. When a main character is gunned down, we don’t even see it. We just hear the shot, and see shocked bystanders in a very real-looking wide shot. In modern Hollywood, we are accostomed to the garish glorification of violence, where stars point guns at the camera and deliver one-liners before making visible wounds in a person. The violence in this movie is real violence though. The constant threat of being shot is just a part of the setting. The violence that is important for us to see is the Lieutenant’s inner violence. The way he hatefully self-destructs, the way he swigs vodka with a sad desperation, and the way he robs young thieves to get coke for his prostitutes, is where the real brutality in this story is shown.
Bad Lieutenant seems like a 70’s shoot-em-up movie about seedy corruption, but there is far more going on below the surface. The over-all structure fails as a morality play but the movie is peppered with moments of graceful artistry. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0103759/), (http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=badlieutenant.htm)