Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Bad Lieutenant (1992)

Director Abel Ferrara provocatively mixes the profane and the blessed to transcendent effect in this gritty interrogation of redemption

The Very Best



United States of America
English, Spanish
Crime, Drama
Bianca Hunter, Bo Dietl, Darryl Strawberry
96 min


Bad Lieutenant’s terrible baseball bets walked so Uncut Gems’ doomed basketball wager could run.

What it's about

A corrupt police officer grapples with the limits of redemption as he investigates the rape of a nun while juggling his drug addiction and gambling habit.

The take

Bad Lieutenant is no misnomer: Harvey Keitel’s policeman really is one of NYPD’s worst. Already corrupt, abrasive, and abusive at the film’s outset, the movie chronicles his coked-out descent into total depravity after he’s called to investigate a heinous crime amid rapidly worsening personal circumstances. The brilliance of Bad Lieutenant is therefore a counterintuitive one: as awful as the Lieutenant is, we can’t help but feel emotionally involved because, in Keitel’s bravura performance, we can see the glint of pain — and thus of a person — within.

Always one for provocation, director Abel Ferrara pushes our empathy to — and maybe even beyond — its natural limits, only to break with the film’s hitherto unrelenting grit and dangle the glinting possibility of transcendent redemption in front of us. Anyone familiar with Catholic guilt cinema (movies like Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door and Mean Streets) will instantly recognize the same undercurrent running through Bad Lieutenant — even if Ferrara takes the idea of juxtaposing the profane with the sacred to the extreme here.

What stands out

Keitel matches Bad Lieutenant’s intensity with an acutely vulnerable performance. As the Lieutenant, he goes to every kind of extreme, the magic lying in the sheer range of the spectrum he travels. It’d be a commendably committed and daring performance even if the movie ended before the climactic church scene, but the howling display of spiritual desperation Keitel gives in that moment makes this one of the most courageously naked performances of all time.


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