Bad Lieutenant (1992)
Directed by Abel Ferrara
Produced by Edward R. Pressman
Written by Abel Ferrara and Zoë Lund
(1:33) Amazon Prime
Written, produced, and directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer
Based on the play by Kaj Munk
(2:05) Criterion Channel
No one who has seen it is indifferent to Bad Lieutenant (1992). Calling the film a portrait of a corrupt cop is like referring to the pandemic as a brief interruption of our normal activities. Harvey Keitel plays the titular but unnamed law enforcement official who does it all: snorts cocaine before arriving on the site of a double murder, hands a dealer a bag of drugs confiscated from a crime scene, gets wasted and joins a couple of women for a threesome, you name it. And significantly, the lieutenant derives no pleasure from any of these acts.
The lieutenant is also constantly making the worst possible gambling decisions throughout the film. Any third grader could make more intelligent bets. If this were a different film, viewers might yell at the screen, “Don’t do it! Don’t place that bet!” but this guy is so self-destructive, you hope he’ll just cut his losses and stop. He doesn’t.
And we haven’t even talked about this guy’s home life.
The lieutenant is a Catholic who believes he’s saved because he’s Catholic; what he does and how he behaves don’t matter. I won’t get into the theology of that (which is not limited to Catholicism), but I will say that you could legitimately think of the lieutenant as a callous version of Keitel’s character Charlie Cappa from Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets (1973). In that film, Charlie struggles to hang onto his faith while working for his mobster uncle. The cop in Bad Lieutenant abandoned any such struggles of faith long ago, clinging instead to an identity (real or imagined) bestowed upon him and embraced early in his life, probably from childhood. Any guilt he feels over his sins of commission or omission have been pummeled away by years of drugs, booze, and sex. He lives in a stupor of his own making, yet one that allows enough bravado to emerge, presenting him with ample opportunities to gamble away everything. This is a man near the end of the line, and he knows it.
I could give you a complete rundown of the film’s storyline, but in this case, less is more. I will tell you that the closest thing we have to a plot involves the lieutenant’s investigation of the brutal rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn) by two young men. This is an extremely unsettling scene, making Ferrara’s 1981 breakout film Ms .45 look tame, yet it is necessary for the film to work.
The film includes at least two unforgettable scenes in which Keitel tries to convince two very different women to perform two very different acts. One is utterly distasteful, the other comes from a complete misunderstanding of what faith really involves.
In the first, the lieutenant approaches a parked car with two young women inside. This scene was severely edited for the R-rated (rather than the original NC-17) version of the film. You will probably wish you could unsee it. Yet this offensive moment shows just how far this character has fallen. There’s an idea in Christianity (and perhaps in other faiths) that in order to understand your need for redemption, you have to see how bad you really are. Something happens during the last third of the film that shows the lieutenant that very thing. Is it an hallucination? A vision? Keitel’s performance here literally resonates and reverberates, haunting both him and the audience.
Yet Keitel’s performance truly makes the film. In the title role originally meant for Christopher Walken, Keitel takes more risks than any actor I can think of, at least in recent memory. How he pulled this off, I have no idea. I would imagine that in any interview with Keitel, a discussion of Bad Lieutenant would be off limits. Or maybe not.
In his review, Roger Ebert (who gave the film four stars) states that Bad Lieutenant “takes spirituality and morality more seriously than most films do.” You could say the same for the Carl Theodor Dreyer film Ordet (1955), a film that may be the most opposite film imaginable from Bad Lieutenant.
Ordet feels like it takes place in another universe, and in a way, it does. Set in rural Denmark in 1925, the film focuses primarily on the Borgen family, whose patriarch Morten (Henrik Malberg), a widower, is a respected member of the community and the local parish church. His sons and their degrees of belief vary wildly. Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) expresses no faith, but is very happily married to the devout Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), pregnant with their third child. Young Anders (Cay Kristiansen) is in love with Anne (Gerda Nielsen), the daughter of the local tailor, who is also the leader of a different Christian sect. And then there’s Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye), who believes that he is Jesus Christ.
Most audiences watching the first few minutes of Ordet will suspect that it is based on a play, and it is. Those same audiences may also think that the film is going to be stuffy, boring, and predictable. I thought that during the film’s opening moments, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. When Anders goes to ask Anne’s father Peter (Ejner Federspiel) for her hand in marriage, Peter refuses. Anders and his family aren’t part of his sect of Christianity, hence Anders isn’t good enough for Anne. Incensed, Morten goes to Peter’s house to confront him. Again, we think we know where this is going, but we don’t. The film hits you in ways you don’t expect, but it also takes you to a place most films wouldn’t even attempt, then or now.
After watching Ordet, Ebert wrote, “When the film was over, I had plans. I could not carry them out. I went to bed. Not to sleep. To feel. To puzzle about what had happened to me.” I felt the same way about Ordet, but after watching it, I realized I also felt something similar at the end of Bad Lieutenant. The characters at the end of Ordet have learned something so profound it forces you to either greatly expand your thinking or simply to lie down in bed let the film sink in. You simply can’t just walk around and go on with your normal activities after watching it. Bad Lieutenant doesn’t attain this level of meditation, but it does present you with an opportunity to examine what forgiveness, mercy, and grace actually mean in this broken decaying world we live in. I doubt Abel Ferrara ever saw Ordet before making Bad Lieutenant, but then again, maybe he did.
Bad Lieutenant and Ordet contain what writer Flannery O’Connor refers to as moments of grace. These moments normally occur after scenes of grotesqueness, violence, hatred, or all three. Her most famous story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” is so powerful and unrelenting, that the moment of grace is almost unnoticeable to some readers, yet it is there. O’Connor once wrote, “I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. Their heads are so hard that almost nothing else will work.”
Years ago I chose this short story collection for the Guys Book Club, a group I've led at my library for the past 10 years. During the discussion, one man, an agnostic, kept shaking his head, saying, "I can't... I just can't come to grips with these stories. I see the moments of grace you mentioned, but I just can't deal with it." We might find ourselves saying the same thing after watching Bad Lieutenant and Ordet. Be warned: these are all works that challenge you.
O’Connor died in 1964, so it’s very possible she could have seen Ordet, which was released in the U.S. in 1957. Had she lived to see Bad Lieutenant, I believe she might have sat watching the end credits roll before saying in her Georgia accent, “Yep. That’s it.”
These two films and all of O’Connor’s writings require those who engage in these works to reflect on them. You can’t consume them and simply walk away. They work on you. If you’re up to the challenge, know that you may not be the same after engaging with these works. And that’s not a bad thing.
You can see Bad Lieutenant on Amazon Prime, Ordet on the Criterion Channel, and can find Flannery O'Connor's fiction and non-fiction in bookstores and libraries.