Bad Lieutenant (1992)

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*. Is he really that bad a lieutenant? The poster says “Gambler. Thief. Killer. Cop.” but does he kill anyone? He’s an addict (drugs, booze, gambling, to some extent sex) so he steals to feed his habits. Hey, we all have our weaknesses.
*. It’s a character study, but we don’t learn much about the lieutenant’s character. Even his name is left out (he appears in the credits only as “LT”). What is his background? Tough, to be sure — he mentions dodging bullets since he was 14 — but that’s all we know.
*. He seems to have few personal connections. Who is Zoe Lund’s character to him? A prostitute? Just another junky? Who are all those women in the house? Family, one assumes, but there is no explanation for their presence. On the commentary Ferrara identifies the old lady as his mother-in-law, but I don’t recall any point in the movie where this is indicated. Indeed none of the women of the house even say anything.
*. Roger Ebert had a way of describing films in fictional ways. Here: “He [the lieutenant] still lives in a comfortable middle-class home, with a wife and three children who have long since made their adjustment to his madness.” Actually there are four children (the two boys, a little girl and a toddler). And how they’ve all adjusted to his madness isn’t clear since they’re not characters we know much about.

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*. Not knowing who the lieutenant is makes a difference. How can we relate to his calling out Jesus at the end? How did Jesus let him down? It seems like he’s just blaming God for how he’s screwed up his own life. I like how he admits he’s weak and needs help, but that’s something we might all say on a bad day.
*. Ferrara likes building movies around these large central performances: Zoe Lund as Ms. 45, Christopher Walken as the King of New York. Note I said “performances,” not “characters.” Characters are developed through a story. Ferrara is more of an observer than a storyteller.
*. I guess you have to respect Ferrara for being such a doggedly independent spirit, but that independence hasn’t always been put to use developing terribly original ideas.
*. The National League Championship Series that’s always playing in the background is invented, but the players are real. I thought it worked quite well until the very end when the announcer has no excitement in his voice at all as he calls the final out.
*. I love the crazy editing in the scene where Keitel is listening to the final game of the series as he drives around. The play-by-play is continuous but there are huge jump cuts in the action. Director of photography Ken Kelsch says on the commentary that he doesn’t know whose idea this was, but it works.
*. It was shot so cheaply and quickly, it’s hard to tell what all about it was planned and deliberate. In the communion scene at the church where Keitel is telling his bookie he wants to go double or nothing on his bet and his bookie warns him that the guy who’s taking his bets will blow up his house and everyone in it if he loses, is it only coincidence that the stained glass window behind Keitel’s head says “memory of wife and child”? I don’t think it can be a coincidence, but I guess it’s possible.

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*. As another example, Kelsch says on the commentary track that the lighting in the scene between Keitel and the nun, with the two cones of light framing her own cone-like shape, was serendipity. I don’t see how that could have not been planned.
*. The Catholic stuff is overdone, but that’s part of the weird attraction of Catholicism, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell what’s kitsch and what’s representative of genuine religious feeling. That prominent cross the girl driving the car has on her ring? That Jesus blanket on the couch at the drug dealer’s house? The gem-encrusted cigar box/reliquary they keep the drug loot in?

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*. Credit Keitel for selling a very difficult part. I think he’s a limited actor, but in the one kind of role he’s really good in (something by Scorsese or Tarantino) he’s terrific.
*. I was wondering why Keitel wasn’t getting wet in the car scene. On the commentary Kelsch explains they had an umbrella over him. Which is considerate, but of course makes no sense.

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*. Keitel was ripped for this film wasn’t he? I guess if you know you’re doing a nude scene you’re going to want to spend some time in the gym.
*. As he’s about to release, Keitel tells the girl in the car to open her mouth “and take that scum.” I don’t remember ejaculate being referred to as “scum” in the ’90s. But since Keitel was improvising all of this, maybe it was a usage he was familiar with.

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*. The (improbably sexy) nun’s confession is a bit much. Kelsch: “I think it becomes a little pompous, the dialogue here.” And how.

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*. Co-writer Zoe Lund gets to deliver a great monologue: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We got to eat away at ourselves. We got to eat our legs to get the energy to walk. We got to come so we can go. We got to suck ourselves off. We got to eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing left but appetite. We give and give and get crazy.” Ferrara calls this “Zoe at her best,” while Kelsch says “this is her entire philosophy . . . poetic despair.” It’s like a dark epiphany, but you wouldn’t want any more of it.

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