Monday 14 July 2008

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

The Lieutenant, who doesn't have a name, has more than a few problems. Hell, he starts snorting coke outside his kids' school the moment he drops them off. He doesn't just have a drug problem, he has a gambling problem too, slapping tens of thousands of dollars of his own money on the World Series. He has a drink problem, adding hard liquor to cocaine and heroin and whatever else he's doing. And he has a sex problem, a violence problem and a temper problem. When a baseball game doesn't go the way he wants, he shoots the radio, while he's driving down a crowded street. From the opening scenes, it would seem that there aren't many problems he doesn't have.

He's doesn't seem to have a single redeeming feature, being morally corrupt to a rather stunning degree and it becomes difficult to watch the depths to which he trawls. He coerces a couple of young ladies into giving him sexual favours in return for not hauling them in for a minor vehicle offence. He tries to surreptiously retrieve drugs from a crime scene. At a convenience store, he forces a couple of thieves to fork over the money they stole but we know that he isn't going to return it to the owner. When he ends up $60,000 in the hole on a game and wants to double or nothing, his contact points out that points out that the man will kill his family. He doesn't care, and in fact answers, 'Good'.

There are two reasons to watch, and neither are because of the depravity, which is graphic but not stimulating. In fact at points it's downright repellent. One reason is because of the performance of the lead actor, Harvey Keitel. He's played some lowdown characters in his time but this one must take the biscuit and he is truly and unpredictably magnetic, even when doing things that we don't want to see. It may be easy to believe Keitel in a role like ths because we're almost conditioned into believing it through experiencing his other work but that denigrates his performance and it's fundamentally unfair. He is amazing here, pure and simple.

The other reason is also because of Keitel's performance but has to do with how it changes. This unnamed cop spiralling so far out of control manages to find a semblance of conscience investigating a case. Two young men rape a nun, in a church no less. They violate her with a crucifix and paint obscenities over the altar. This in itself doesn't cause any change in our Lieutenant, who is a Catholic who believes the church is a racket. Yet the nun knows who her attackers were and she forgives them and it's his complete and utter inability to comprehend this act that triggers a sort of hallucinatory readjustment.

There are a lot of ways to read this and there isn't a single answer. I think the meaning will have to resonate because this film is so much of a cinematic slap in the face that it induces shock.

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