“I’m sorry, Lord. I’ve done so many bad things.” – Lieutenant
When is NC-17 necessary and why is it used at all? Bad Lieutenant (1992), with extreme adult material, was one of the first NC-17 movies that matters. Harvey Keitel, in a hellbent tour of self-destruction, plays a very lousy and immoral human being who uses his NYPD badge to commit reprehensible acts. He is high on cocaine or mellowed on heroin, which he either steals from crime scenes or trades with corner hustlers. He is into degraded sex. He gambles on the L.A. Dodgers to beat the New York Mets coast series with double-down recklessness. His married life no longer means anything to him. The sooner he drops his boys off at school the faster he can snort his morning coke. Following all this character detail, he is then placed as head investigator of the rape of a nun. In an interview session, the nun forgives her attackers. The lieutenant does not comprehend this kind of forgiveness, this kind of absolution. Even if he has been to Church.
Keitel went through his own gilded age with one head-turning, gritty indie performance after another in “Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “The Piano” (1993); “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Imaginary Crimes” (1994), “Smoke” (1995). Without a doubt, “Bad Lieutenant” is the most powerful of all his performances. He has the improbable but persuasive scene at the 42-minute mark where, out of rage, he pulls out a gun in his own car and blows a hole through his radio when the Dodgers lose. That’s a frenzied, the-man-has-lost-it sight that has to be seen to believe. And can’t be seen anywhere else.
The loss of Catholic faith is a theme that has been compared to the cinema of Scorsese, and the notions of moral lines and religious guilt can be compared to “Raging Bull” (1980) and “GoodFellas” (1990). The “Bad Lieutenant” filmmaker is Abel Ferrara, who even in his exploitation days made art before box office product. Ferrara shot his 1992 magnum opus “Lieutenant” in raw, blotchy colors and with shabby, semi-disoriented camera movement. I believe Ferrara made this film for his own personal demented reasons – to lash out the frustrations of the ferocious urban man ready to die through over-indulgence of his own vices – and not to particularly “copy” Scorsese. The comparisons are legitimate but are not self-conscious and shouldn’t be mistaken so.
You can’t get this kind of material in regular movies. Nor, do I believe, should it be spoon fed for mass consumption. I’m glad most kids don’t need this film, and that it is barred in its own special category of NC-17 and that it is “exclusive.” Some viewers of adult age might find this film too high stress.
But the young adults who grew up with raging fathers, under the shroud of alcoholism or drug abuse in their house, can pluck deep meaning from this film, and therefore transcend it. Or perhaps you’ve lived such a coddled safe life that you hunger to know how the sleazy inner-city addicts live to us in contrast. It is with films like “Bad Lieutenant” where we come to understand uncontrollable, horrible men – and their pitiable efforts to salvage some last shred of humanity in their twilight hours. For Keitel’s Lieutenant, it’s to not avenge the nun’s rapists but to ingrain fear into these assailants so they will never commit sin again.
Note: This past weekend opening of “Killer Joe,” directed by William Friedkin and starring Matthew McConaughey, is the latest NC-17 film to take advantage of harrowingly artistic and thematically unhinged material.
96 Minutes. Rated NC-17.
Film Cousins: “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” (1990); “Requiem for a Dream” (2000); “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans” (2009); “Rampart” (2012).