Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(1) (1993) 5-6
Director: Abel Ferrara
Writers: Abel Ferrara and Zoe Lund
Starring: Harvey Keitel
Released: Forthcoming video release
Release date not available
Bad Lieutenant is a story of human degradation and the difficult path toward redemption. Harvey Keitel gives the performance of a lifetime as a deviant cop on the lookout for his next degrading thrill through booze, coke, junk, and sexual perversion. Drawing on the Lieutenant's evil nature, Ferrara (Ms.45, King of New York) and Lund weave a biblical tale of mortal man's search for salvation and personal moral worth.
The film opens with the Lieutenant driving his two sons to school. After dropping them off, he snorts cocaine behind the wheel of his car as we listen to the radio announcer tell us that the New York Mets have lost three straight playoff games to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Lieutenant has bet all that he has on the Dodgers to sweep, and Ferrara uses these final, frenzied games as a backdrop for the Lieutenant's crisis of morality.
It's not until a particularly brutal rape of a beautiful nun and the desecration of a Catholic church by two Hispanic boys that the Lieutenant is awakened from his drug induced fog. The Lieutenant is humiliated and enraged, not by the crime, but by the fact that the nun knows who the attackers are and won't divulge the information to the police. In a Christ- like gesture of forgiveness, the nun says, "I ought to have turned bitter semen into fertile sperm, hatred into love." The nun's exoneration of the rapists busts the Lieutenant's dogmatic world view wide open and causes him to spin out of control at an accelerated pace.
In the Lieutenant's frenzied search for meaning, he engages in as much vice as the criminals he pursues. And in an act of desecration parallel to that of the young boys, the Lieutenant abuses his police power by pulling over two teenage girls and making them engage in his whimsical sexual vignette. The scene produces a tremendous amount of anxiety among viewers although it is shot without any physical contact between the actors and with no clothes being removed.[End page 5]
The Lieutenant, realizing that he is spiraling downward into the abyss of immortality, attempts to redeem himself. But acts of goodness are so foreign to him, that at times he screams out loud in agony. Salvation to the Lieutenant does not come easily, and, in the end, Ferrara appears to suggest a parallel between the Bad Lieutenant and Jesus Christ.
This dark and disturbing movie is an excellent pedagogical tool for demonstrating the lived experience of deviance and degradation. Accordingly, the movie visualizes the relationship between degradation and transcendence in a manner similar to the work of phenomenological criminologist's like Shlomo Shoham and Jack Katz. This exploration of the phenomenological foreground is valuable to any student of deviance theory since it provides an enhanced appreciation of deviance and offers a richer context for the development of theory. Besides this theoretical concern, the movie is also valuable for exploring students' perceptions of police and their proper role in society.
Ferrara's depiction of a cop sinking into moral oblivion highlights the degrading path some of us live. Overall, the movie is good, and Harvey Keitel is extraordinary. However, at times, the movie is presented in such a nihilistic fashion that it detracts from the overall redemptive picture. In the end, the most interesting criminological point is made when the nun refuses to implicate the boys, and, instead, absolves them of their heinous crime. Thus, she achieves salvation and redemption through the Catholic church and not through the criminal justice system! This point, among others, ensures that the film will provide ample material for some interesting and stimulating class discussions. Accordingly, I sentence the Bad Lieutenant with 3 1/2 gavels.
State University of New York at Albany
School of Criminal Justice
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