What a twisted tale of redemption. Ferrara goes where most won’t. If you want to write a tale of a bad man doing good, you might as well make him as bad as imaginable. Harvey Keitel once again embodies a role no one else would touch, playing a crooked junkie degenerate gambler NYPD cop on the fast-track to self-destruction. We meet him when he is trying to commit suicide by proxy, either by overdose or by getting so deep in debt that the mob rubs him out, doing him the favor.
Ferrara paints the life of a man in misery, who has hurt everyone around him- during the brief scenes with his family they say nothing, and move cautiously around him, having learned to flinch whenever he moves. He reminds me of the lyric from Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire”– “like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who has reached out for me.” We follow him as he treads a path of corruption through the city- scoring drugs, trying to steal evidence, shaking down thieves. These aren’t the usual fetishistic admirations of the junkie ritual like in Pulp Fiction; when he shoots up with his fixer, the deal comes with an S&M show set to Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love,” showing the level of self-degradation necessary to put a flicker across his burnt-out receptors. The irony of using a heartfelt ballad from the ’50s is not lost; “LT” is a child of that era, and the song would remind him of his teen days when he wasn’t a piece of human wreckage.
Everything changes when a nun is raped and brutalized in church; the rest of the cops are mobilized, but he remains unmoved. He has faith in nothing. When the church puts up a $50,000 reward, he smirks “Girls get raped every day. They give a shit this time because they wear penguin suits?” The other cops are so offended that they challenge him, and he defends himself by saying he was raised Catholic. Martin Scorcese brings a “fallen Catholic” sensibility to his mob films, but Abel Ferrara makes a true Catholic redemption fable here. The Lieutenant as much as rapes two girls he pulls over for driving without a license; he never touches them, but his lewd demands are unforgettable.
Originally he wants to hunt down the rapists for that money, to save himself from the loan sharks. But when he talks to the nun, she says she forgives the boys. She won’t name them, even when he eavesdrops on her confession. All is lost; LT knows he can’t pay off the mob, and he is going to die. He breaks down in the church, and his glimmer of faith is rewarded; he finds a way to catch them. But this isn’t a heroic tale, and how he redeems his life of evil does not sit well with the audience. We want revenge, and thus Ferrara shows that if we truly believe in the laws of God, we are just as guilty as LT. Wrath, and murder are our sins. The Lieutenant dies for his own sins, but by freeing the rapists as the nun asks, is he performing the Will of God, by letting Him judge them? Or is the nun insane from her trauma, and is it all in his head?
LT sees Jesus in the church, hallucination or not; some of the scenes of him bringing the boys to the bus are done in handheld, at eye level, as if to show Jesus watching. The ending is one of the most powerful in cinema, as LT fights every fiber of his being that wants to mete justice, but “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord.” I am irreligious, but was raised Catholic, and know the rules. This is Seven without the glitz or the serial killer angle. It’s an unflinching look at the evil of the world circa 1990 New York City, and an accusing finger pointed back at those who like Travis Bickle, wanted a “real rain to come and wash the filth away.”
If you can get past the raw emotion of Keitel’s performance, and the brutality of his behavior, this is a great film. Unfortunately due to Jimmy Page being a cocksucker, Schooly D’s excellent “Signifying Rapper,” which used a sample from “Kashmir,” is cut from the film. Years later Page would show how principled he was by allowing Puffy Daddy to sample it in a shitty song that was used in the shitty shit movie Godzilla. See this before Nick Cage and Werner Herzog(!!!) make a remake/prequel/wtf called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which will be interesting, to say the least. Just make sure you get the original NC-17 cut, or you’re wasting your time.