The vision of policing presented in Bad Lieutenant, a mordant, searing account of a New York City cop in deep spiritual crisis, seemed fairly radical at the time of its 1992 release. Way beyond the usual pessimistic depictions of rote corruption and donut-scarfing indolence long familiar to viewers, Harvey Keitel’s nameless antihero is a figure of pure malevolence, a shark drawn to weakness, actively seeking to visit harm upon himself and the unwitting public he claims to serve. Almost 30 years later, after nearly a decade of constant police violence and ever-more intractable resistance to public outcry over such abuses, the movie’s portrayal comes off as far less extreme. While not an overtly political work, it does make clear note of the space fellow officers open up for the Lieutenant’s self-destructive rampage, and with its twisted enmeshment of criminal and law-enforcement elements, ends up producing a strong argument for the force’s status as an ancillary extension of the underworld, rather than a heroic hedge against it.

In short, his monstrous actions are less an aberration than a case of the usual acceptable corruption pushed past the self-imposed boundaries that normally contain it, a state of sinful transcendence he can access given his personal mania and the leeway granted an officer of his rank. Yet director Abel Ferrara also doesn’t let the rest of the city off easily, with the Lieutenant introduced as a direct product of his decomposing environment. Swathed in a sepulchral gloom that envisions Manhattan as one of the lower levels of hell, the film stands as one of the clearest illustrations of a metropolis on the brink of chaos. It’s set just after the city’s criminal peak, with over 2,200 murders in 1990, a number that’s dropped by nearly 2,000 in recent years. Also, 1990 was the last year the hometown Mets had a winning season until 1997, dropping from regular contender for most of the ‘80s into perennial loser status. Both of these details are significant.

Relishing in bad behavior while never glorifying it, Bad Lieutenant is an ugly, aggressive film, and not one I was much inclined toward when I first saw it in 2007. This was my first experience with Ferrara, and despite still being perhaps his most notorious movie, it’s not an ideal introduction to the oeuvre, which masterfully filters pulp elements through a fixation on religious sacrifice and eternal damnation. Embodying a grim sort of heightened reality in which emotions and actions are amplified to the max, this work has gradually matured from the early provocations of The Driller Killer and Ms. 45 to the rueful post-addiction meditations of 4:44 Last Day on Earth and Tommaso. A refinement of the Grand Guignol crudeness of exploitation flicks like William Lustig’s Maniac Cop, Bad Lieutenant installs Catholic guilt as a central thematic motif, creating a glorious fusion of art and trash that manages to embody both sides of the equation, without ever tipping its hand definitively to either one.

The film also functions as another fascinating example of Ferrara’s career-long dialogue with the work of Martin Scorsese, and vice versa. Decades before Tommaso inserted Willem Dafoe into a modern twist on his role as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, Keitel here carries over his as Judas, his character’s traitorous status confirmed by the placement of a series of secret bets against the Mets in an imagined version of the ‘91 NLCS. This is underscored by the fact that those bets are on the Dodgers — the team who helped clear the way for the Mets creation after abandoning the city for greener pastures out west — with a lineup anchored by recently departed slugger Darryl Strawberry. This all took place years before Strawberry’s struggles with substance abuse became public, a fact that adds further gravity to the film’s sports-talk radio Greek chorus, which provides the main source of pressure on our miserable protagonist, as one bet after another comes up bad.

Stumbling through a series of crimes, trysts and sexual assaults, the Lieutenant juggles his addiction to drugs with a frenzied dedication to digging himself in as deep a financial hole as humanly possible, all while half-heartedly investigating the brutal rape of a nun, a crime that seems to threaten the complete collapse of his already delicate mental state. His bad choices are so compulsive that they at some point begin to seem purposefully self-inflicted, the actions of a man actively seeking out the fires of hell, so sickened by his own spiritual disfigurement that he can seek only to further augment its effects. How much of this behavior is conscious is wisely never made explicit, but this sense of self-loathing suffuses the entire proceedings, culminating in pointless act of forgiveness and self-sacrifice that only underscores the futility of the entire enterprise.

Many portrayals of Catholicism settle upon the ready promise of forgiveness, which conceivably lies open to even the worst sinner. But Ferrara realizes that for the religion to work, somebody has to be damned. This doesn’t mean there’s anything noble in this damnation, nor does self-flagellation serve any purpose beyond perverse self-abuse. As he so often does, the director skirts blasphemy by having the Lieutenant strike a brief Christlike pose in the full-frontal nude scene that provides the film’s poster art. Never granted a trace of grandeur, however, the weeping character is quickly revealed as little more than a gibbering baby reaching out for an absent mother, his bottle represented by the full bottle of vodka he proceeds to chug. Encasing the entire movie within this noxious narcissist’s overwhelming id, Ferrara crafts a scabrous, merciless portrait of a man doomed by his own weakness to never be any better, a monster completely implicated in his own the damnation that defines his earthly life, as well as the one beyond it.

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