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Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Co-written by Zoe Lund, the actress who (as Zoe Tamerlis) played the lead in Abel Ferrara's Ms .45, this turns away from the energetic sleekness of the director's work on King of New York or Cat Chaser and returns to the rough-edged, semi-improv tone of his early films (remember The Driller Killer, bête noir of the 'video nasty' hysteria?), presenting an impressionistic series of individually downbeat and cumulatively shattering scenes loosely strung together by the central character's escalating insanity.

The bad lieutenant of the title is a cop going out of control, shaking down drug dealers for crack cocaine he himself uses and running an illegal book in his department to finance his own mountaining gambling debts. Returning to the New York of his battered tough guy roles in Mean Streets and Fingers, Harvey Keitel gives a performance of literally naked agony in the lead, forsaking the Hollywood mainstream of his recent work in Thelma and Louise or Sister Act a performance no other name actor would dare give. At his worst, in a scene that it as once almost unwatchable and a triumph of over-the-edge acting, he takes advantage of a minor traffic offence to sexually harass a pair of underage girls, spieling maniacally as he masturbates (mercifully off-camera) for what seems like a full reel.

The catalyst for the lieutenant's ambiguous redemption is an angelic nun (Frankie Thorn) who is raped in a church by teenage louts, prompting catholic gangsters to post an unofficial reward for the apprehension of the culprits that could help Keitel out of a growing debt hole. The most shocking aspect of the crime, to Keitel and to audiences used to the vigilante spirit of American action movies, is that the nun is herself able to forgive her attackers, inspiring Keitel (drawing on his image as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ) to have brutally ecstatic religious visions which finally lead him, in a frenzy of torment, to perform an act of expiation which you'll argue about on the way home.

As in The Driller Killer and Ms .45, a maddened protagonist is unable to deal with the chaos of New York City, but here the conclusion of the psychosis is a turning-away from violence which leads to a moment of transcendence and almost merciful death. Not exactly comfortable viewing, but disturbing, raw film-making and award-worthy acting.

First Published In: Empire (issue unknown)

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