Abel Ferrara’s uncompromising “Bad Lieutenant” is a harrowing journey with a corrupt N.Y. cop sinking into the lower depths. Film’s frank treatment of drug addiction, obsessive sexuality and loss of religious faith spells instant controversy. Its world preem at the Cannes Film Festival may overshadow competing entries, especially in light of Harvey Keitel’s extraordinary and uninhibited performance in the title role.
Beyond the critical debate pic will engender, presenting a challenge for some adventurous domestic distributor yet to be signed, “Bad” represents the first true test of the 2-year-old NC-17 rating since Universal braved the waters with 1990’s “Henry and June.”
Beyond individual scenes, such as a nun being gang-raped in church, film presents serious material aimed at adults only and could give impetus to committed filmmakers to make use of the heretofore dreaded tag.
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Zoe Lund’s screenplay ambitiously takes on taboo subjects in looking at a degraded subculture in an era of faithlessness and despair.
Not since Ingmar Bergman’s “The Silence” (which confronted censorship back in 1963) has a film tackled the subject of God’s absence from people’s lives in such a sexually explicit and morbid context.
Throughout the film, Keitel is almost constantly sniffing, smoking or injecting drugs he’s stolen from police busts, plus some alcohol on the side and time-outs for sex. The cumulative effect is a far stronger anti-drug message than any lecture on screen could be.
In his stupor, Keitel is investigating random murders, but his mind is on baseball playoffs.
By film’s end he owes an unfriendly bookie $ 120,000; this betting motif, reminiscent of James Toback’s 1974 script “The Gambler,” serves to knit together the film’s episodic, otherwise loosely connected series of vignettes.
Turning point for Keitel is being assigned to a case of a young nun gang-raped in church.
He’s a lapsed Catholic who makes light of the event, but when nun Frankie Thorn (in an unadorned, affecting performance) not only forgives her assailants but expresses great sympathy for them, Keitel faces a religious crisis of conscience. His attempts at self-redemption are moving but come too late.
Lund, who made her screen debut billed as Zoe Tamerlis in the title role of Ferrara’s 1980 “Ms. 45,” not only is scripter but an impressive natural actress in scenes sharing drugs with Keitel. Her sequence shooting up drugs and then injecting Keitel on camera is intense and riveting.
Even more impressive is a lengthy scene in which Keitel stops two young sisters (Eddie Daniels and Bianca Bakija) from Jersey and harasses them while standing outside their car window.
His tour de force, seemingly improvised acting is matched by the women’s unaffected, nervous naturalism. Sexual content of this scene is suggested rather than explicit but proves far more startling than any porn film.
Elsewhere, Keitel lets it all hang out in a nude Christ-like pose and spends the final reel in howls of despair as he hallucinates the presence of Christ (played by Paul Hipp, who with specs portrayed Buddy Holly on Broadway) in a church.
His risk-taking here ups what stars can dare on screen, much the way Brando pushed the envelope 20 years ago in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris.”
Wide-angle photography by Ken Kelsch (who photographed Ferrara’s first feature “Driller Killer” 13 years ago) is used by the director to clinically observe Keitel’s wayward activity. Real Manhattan locations from Limelight night club to the Port Authority Bus Terminal add to the verisimilitude.
Ferrara, who recently completed a remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” plans to do a biopic on the last days of slain director Pier Paolo Pasolini. With “Bad Lieutenant,” he establishes himself new standard bearer for Pasolini’s poetic realism.