Considering his spotty cinematic CV over the past 15 years or so, it’s easy to see why no-one really talks about Harvey Keitel anymore. A once truly great actor has faded almost into obscurity, which is a great shame. A timely reminder of his acting ability comes this week in the form of a remastered Blu-ray release of Bad Lieutenant.
Directed by gritty indie director Abel Ferrara, Keitel plays the titular Bad Lieutenant, a sloppy cop in the midst of a downward spiral. Self destructive and crooked, he is floating through life on a tidal wave of drug abuse. Using his position of power to finance a gambling addiction, things come to a head when he gets in too deep betting on the National League Championship of baseball.
The stress of his increasing debt only serves to heighten his bizarre behaviour, but the lieutenant sees potential light at the end of the tunnel. A nun has been brutally raped, and the Catholic church have offered a reward for the capture of the perpetrators. The lieutenant’s investigation of the case, however, brings his sense of guilt and shame to the surface, his Catholic upbringing working to try to help him achieve redemption.
Bad Lieutenant is a dark, grimy film. With a very seventies feel, visceral violence and it’s New York setting, it is reminiscent of Taxi Driver. Where Scorsese’s piece was a well-rounded film, however, Lieutenant is more of an experience, a mood piece, with a far looser story structure. There is no defined beginning or middle, other than the arbitrary starting point of the movie. We get the sense that the lieutenant’s behaviour is becoming increasingly erratic, but with no back story to measure it against, we don’t know how long his behaviour has been so abhorrent.
The greatness of the film is not, though, in its narrative, but in its lead actor. This is a character piece, following the meltdown of a deeply damaged and removed individual. With the wrong actor, it would just not have worked, but Keitel is immense. His deeply sincere performance ensures what could have been a trashy, exploitative movie instead works as somewhat of a masterpiece. He is mesmerizing, and completely believable in possibly his greatest, and certainly his bravest performance.
Whilst the film itself is not a narrative masterpiece, there are still interesting themes explored. Aside from the obvious, this is very much a film about religion, more specifically Catholicism. It looks at those who have unwavering faith, those that have none, and those that have lost their faith, but find it still has the power to affect their actions. It is his Catholic background that works as the lieutenant’s last remaining tether to humanity, and which eventually decides his fate.
With harrowing scenes of sexual violence, abuse and drug taking, this is not a film for the faint of heart. It is not an easy picture to recommend to anyone, and should be approached with caution. This is no sanitized Hollywood view of a corrupt policeman, it is a truly warts and all exploration of a man’s loss of humanity, in a city awash with inhumanity, a pre-Giuliani New York.
Thanks to Keitel’s fantastic performance, it is also a masterpiece of sorts, and a must-watch for anyone who has an interest in great acting. You have to wonder who Keitel upset towards the end of the nineties, as after a string of great roles and brilliant performances, he faded into the background over the next decade.
Theatrical Trailer. Introduction, interview with, and commentary with the always entertaining, if somewhat frightening, Abel Ferrara. The commentary provides some interesting insights, but if anything probably detracts from your interpretation of the film rather than enhancing it.