Courage may be the only word that can possibly describe Harvey Keitel's performance as the "bad lieutenant," a cop so burned out, strung out and hopeless that to watch him come to life onscreen is simultaneously frightening, pathetic, sad, frustrating and infuriating.
"Bad Lieutenant" is co-written and directed by Abel Ferrara in such a manner that its edges only add to its magnetism. In the film, Keitel plays the nameless lieutenant, a cop whose frazzled presence has destroyed his career, his family, his children and, ultimately, his own life as he has begun his slow fade into cocaine and alcohol addiction. When a nun is raped, Keitel's character meets her in the hospital and despite her knowing who raped her she refuses to press charges. She has forgiven them, a level of redemption and absolution for which the "lieutenant" has no frame of reference.
Keitel's performance is courageous, almost psychotic, because it is deeply and profoundly authentic. There are films that are painful to watch because they are simply too real. "Bad Lieutenant" is too real.
The rape scene in "Bad Lieutenant", while not as drawn out or histrionic as that in "The Accused," is, nonetheless, one of the painful, dramatic rape scenes captured on film. Likewise, Keitel's own scenes are almost nauseating in the way Keitel portrays the lieutenant as both frightening and frightened, powerful and powerless in his life.
Keitel captured the Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead for his performance here, and the film and Ferrara also received nominations. While there are supporting performances, this clearly is a one man tour-de-force performance for Keitel. An interesting sidenote is that Keitel's real life daughter, Stella, portrays his daughter here. One has to wonder how it played on her psyche to see the deterioration of this onscreen father figure.
Gritty, unique, authentic and achingly painful are all words that sum up "Bad Lieutenant," a film from Abel Ferrara that may, in fact, feature the best performance in a career of awesome performances from Harvel Keitel.
I believe it is my dark side that admired this film...yep, it's true. I'm a minister who actually acknowledges the shadows within. This film explores those shadows with an intense, graphic approach that is seldom seen in modern cinema. Harvey Keitel does an admirable job playing the Lieutenant. Keitel offers a gripping performance here that brings forth fear, humor, sympathy and repulsion. This film is definitely not for everyone...it is raw, graphic and was originally rated NC-17 largely due to its intense, graphic language and a scene depicting the rape of a nun. The film approaches the topics of temptation and guilt and their impact on our spiritual judgement, however, doesn't always explore these areas fully enough. The film is directed by Abel Ferrara, and he also co-writes the film with Zoe Lund. An interesting side note is that Stella Keitel, daughter of Keitel and Lorraine Bracco, has a supporting role here as Keitel's daughter. Keitel picked up an Independent Spirit Award for his performance in this film. This is not an easy film to watch, however, I admired its willingness to approach challenging spiritual topics and explore them in the most graphic of ways.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic