Saoirse’s Cult Corner #13: Bad Lieutenant (1992)

In this column, cult columnist Saoirse takes you on a biweekly jaunt through the obscure annals of the cult film world. We’ll touch on everything from Giallo to J-Horror to Wakaliwood & so much more. If it’s a low budget genre film, or even a big-budget flop with a dogged audience, or even an undiscovered gem, it belongs here. 

This week, we take a look at Abel Ferrara’s classic and controvertial crime drama, Bad Lieutenant

cw/ rape and other sexual abuses

Abel Ferrara is a strange man. He started in pornography, (self starring by the way), before his big break into more narrative cinema, The Driller Killer, which I love by the way. It’s dark, and edgy, and has this massive punk sensibility, not just manifested by an actual in-universe punk band, but it’s lo-fi cinematography and a card at the beginning that reads, ‘PLAY THIS FILM LOUD’. In recent years Ferrara seems to have moved into more poetic works like Passolini, Tommaso, & 4:44 Last Day on Earth, but if you really take a look at the films from the middle of his career, like The Addiction, New Rose Hotel, & even well, Bad Lieutenant, you’d know that he mixes grindhouse and arthouse aesthetics with every film he makes. From The Addiction’s stylish blend of black and white cinematography, poetic cinema aesthetics, & vampire action to Bad Lieutenant’s mix of shocking action with subtle character building and surrealist, transcendent moments. He is someone who seems to consistently combine Andrei Tarkovsky with Hershell Gordon Lewis. Is it any surprise he ended up making a biopic of Pier Paolo Pasolini? 

Bad Lieutenant follows Harvey Keitel as a character only known as The Lieutenant, a gambling-addicted dope fiend who during the course of the film goes from one depraved, deranged, and dark set-pieces to the next. A key one being where he pulls over two teenage girls and using strong extra-judicial threat commits an act of the strongest non-contact sexual assaults and harassments I’ve ever seen put to celluloid. It is an audacious and brutal piece of filmmaking. Famously, the chief British censor James Ferman decided not to cut it because he said it was so uncomfortable and so grimy and so thoroughly horrible that no one could possibly be turned on by it, so it sounds to me like Ferrara directed it exactly how it should’ve been to do an act like that cinematic justice. 

This brings me onto some very central points about Bad Lieutenant that much better critics than me have completely failed to untangle, so I’m sure this’ll go great. These points are Bad Lieutenant’s themes, form, and content. Centrally the subplot involving the nun and the rape. So, the thing about Bad Lieutenant is that a lot of people see it as a film about Catholic Redemption, which it is quite explicitly, but more broadly it is a film about projection. A trend I see a lot in the media and in life, of men projecting their needs onto damaged, innocent, traumatized, often virginal women. I see it more in action movies than anything else, maybe starring Kevin Costner, often from the 80s, almost always directed by men. This is why movies recently like Mad Max: Fury Road & You Were Never Really Here were so exciting, at least in part. They know this trope exists and play with it, change it, update it, in really interesting and subversive ways. Although, when I say that I see this happen in life, what I mean is, I see men do the projection a lot, something I almost never, or maybe even absolutely never see is women in turn then consciously seeing that projection and accepting what is then their inherent objectification. These movies take women and define them by men’s trauma and it needs to stop, and broadly, Bad Lieutenant is about the fact that men do this. 

The film establishes very thoroughly Keitel’s character in this respect. With his compulsive gambling, we see a reflection of the self-destructive cycle of his character, it’s depraved event after depraved event where he is on this path to hell, to damnation. You see very clearly, although it’s never explained to you except maybe right at the end, that he is punishing himself for the bad things he’s done by doing more bad things and he is spiraling out of control in this way fast. There is something in him that he hates and he is punishing that part of him and it’s damaging the whole of him. Fuck I think I’ve read too many Jodorowsky graphic novels I’m beginning to talk like the moralizing spiritual guides in those books… So anyway, this all begins to come to a head when he is made to, as part of his job, investigate the case of the rape of a nun, which we see, but we will get onto that. Keitel can’t understand why the nun forgives her rapists and thus won’t help the police as completely as he wants her to. In this way, because he craves forgiveness so much but doesn’t think he deserves it, the nun forgiving her rapists basically destroys his worldview, which is a pretty traumatic thing to have happen to you and he is already really not okay.

See, this shit is already so tied together I’m already struggling to stay on point. 

I suppose that’s the sign of a good movie, which this is. It’s excellent. 

Keitel doesn’t crave punishment, he doesn’t even crave to punish, he just doesn’t think he’s a good person and doesn’t deserve to improve. The gambling helps prove this point because the idea of a gambling binge is that it’s always the next one that’s going to pay off. In Keitel’s warped psychology, his repulsive acts are the same way, he aims to reach some point of transcendent redemption by continually punishing himself. When the nun forgives her abusers, he can’t accept that because he knows he is an abuser, and he knows that he is not worthy of forgiveness. 

Now we have to talk about the rape scene. 

I’m sorry. 

I don’t know if the cut of Bad Lieutenant I saw was the uncut version or not but it was banned uncut for many, many years in the UK but it is available uncut now, and the cuts were from the rape scene. I have been reliably informed that realistically it makes no real difference to the impact of it. That being said, a lot of these critics think the scene is meant to be read as erotic, which I honestly think says more about the critic than it does the scene. Like, rape is horrible? It’s always horrible on film? I don’t know. Ferrara is possibly the only filmmaker on the whole planet I could imagine intentionally making a rape scene erotic but I don’t think that happened here, I don’t know. Maybe it’s a generational thing but the things the critics cite as erotic, (the loud one-two soundtrack, the stark lighting of reds and blues, and the shots of specific parts of the human body), I do not find exciting or erotic. Maybe it’s a generational thing but I find that assault of sensory impact on a rape scene deeply troubling and it should be. It really should be, and it is. This seems to me to be the language of horror films that had been around for fifteen years at that point like Suspiria, and the scene is juxtaposed surrealist sacrilegious imagery, so I can see no possible reading where this isn’t explicitly meant to be horrible. 

I thought it needed to be said. 

Anyway, you see what I mean? Form, theme, and content and completely inseparable in this movie, but again, that just reads like good filmmaking to me? Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. 

Another place in which I differ from many critics is whether Keitel even reaches his Catholic redemption, and also the particular relevance of the Catholic themes to what Ferrara is doing. Many critics have said that, firstly, yes Keitel does reach catholic redemption, then also that it either is a tacked-on idea to justify all the gratuity, or that it is ultimately made shallow through its depiction with all of that gratuity. I disagree quite fundamentally. I think it is ultimately ambiguous if he is redeemed given the very, very ending of the movie and also how the mystery is resolved, and the way in which that interacts with the themes of redemption is beautiful to me. Bad Lieutenant is ultimately the story of redemption in so much as someone realizes they are a bad person, but that’s not enough, the movie doesn’t think that’s enough, to be redeemed we have to change our actions. To quote Bojack Horseman, “I don’t think I believe in deep down. I kinda think that all you are is just the things that you do”, that is, if anything, given the ending, the ultimate meaning of Bad Lieutenant. Let’s disagree about that until the end of time, it’s more interesting that way.


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