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Bad Lieutenant examines debasement of the soul

Bad Lieutenant
Directed by Abel Ferrara.
Written by Zoe Lund and Abel Ferrara.
Starring Harvey Keitel, Zoe Lund,
and Frankie Thorn.
Loews Nickelodeon.

By Douglas D. Keller

Bad Lieutenant is not a movie for the squeamish. It is not a love story, a cop movie, or a mystery. It is about the self-destruction of a once proud and successful New York City homicide Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel.) At the root of the Lieutenant's destruction lie alcoholism, cocaine addiction, gambling, infidelity, extortion, theft, deceit, and abuse.

The Lieutenant (we never learn his name) inhabits the dark underbelly of NYC. We see him stagger from crack house to whorehouse to murder scene to his mistress Zoe's (Zoe Lund) apartment, where he sits morosely in a kitchen chair snorting coke and shooting and smoking heroin. His actions are without remorse, fueled by his drug addictions and his Mafia-owed gambling debts.

Keitel's Lieutenant is not just a cop on the take -- he's a man drowning in the quicksand of corruption. He uses a tip from a prostitute to steal a kilo of coke from a recently-murdered drug dealer's car. His plan falls through when the bag slips out of his jacket and falls on the curb. In another scene, he pulls over two suggestively-dressed teenage girls for driving with a broken taillight. Finding out that they are driving without a license, he decides to let them go on two conditions: the passenger (Eddie Daniels) must show him her ass while the driver (Bianca Bakija) must show him the way she fellates her boyfriend as the Lieutenant masturbates outside the car.

The Lieutenant is too complex to dismiss as a purely deviant monster; his suffering transcends the personal, addressing every lost soul adrift in a casually cruel and brutally indifferent world. "Vampire's have it lucky because they can feed on other people. We just slowly eat at ourselves 'til there's nothing left but a craving," remarks Zoe to the Lieutenant as she injects a speed-ball into his arm.

The Lieutenant's wake-up call, and his possible salvation, comes unexpectedly in the form of a particularly vicious rape and torture of a nun (Frankie Thorn) on the altar of a church in Spanish Harlem. A lapsed Catholic, Keitel's first reaction is one of scornful indifference, but he quickly realizes that he is drawn to her. He listens from a darkened pew to her confession and is enraged to find that she knows her two attackers but cannot reveal their names because she has already forgiven them.

The nun's pain and piety launch him on a twisted spiritual quest to hunt down her rapists and punish them in the hope that he will be able to turn his life around. In a powerful scene the Lieutenant begins to pass out on the altar steps of the same church when the figure of crucified Jesus (Paul Hipp) appears in the aisle. Keitel questions the figure on what he has done to deserve the pain that he is enduring. As he kisses the feet of Christ he realizes that it is actually just a local worshipper who holds the key to his quest. The Lieutenant proceeds to capture the responsible youths, but in a surprising act of contrition gives up his search for vengeance and embraces the notion of forgiveness, for which he desperately yearns himself.

Bad Lieutenant is a fiercely contemporary moral tale examining the issues of faith, morality, responsibility, and culpability in today's world where cynicism is the norm and everything has its price. Keitel does a magnificent job with his portrayal of the reprehensible Lieutenant, staying true to characters rage without trying to retain a core of sympathy. The Lieutenant is the scum of the earth, but it is impossible to avert our eyes as his acts of desperation become increasingly heinous; at no point can we sympathize with the Lieutenant's plight, but on some level we can all identify with his pain and desperation.

This movie is not for everyone and will not be a blockbuster; most of the scenes are graphic in their depiction of violence, sex, drub abuse, or combinations of the three. Writer/director Abel Ferrara has created a fiery and poignant character study of the effects of self-debasement and redemption as he explores the landscape of the human soul. Ferrara's uncompromising vision and powerful script combine to make an engaging and interesting film.