Bad Lieutenant is famous for one thing, and one thing only: Harvey Keitel’s little Harvey, briefly exposed during one scene. It’s a spurious claim to fame, especially since it’s far from the most arresting thing Abel Ferrara’s 1992 film has to offer, as a viewing of a new “Special Edition” DVD reminds. Lionsgate appears to be dutifully trotting out the new reissue to capitalize on the modest buzz about Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, the forthcoming supposedly-not-a-remake directed by Werner Herzog and starring Nicholas Cage, ostensibly due in theaters this fall. But watching the original again, almost two decades later, reveals a film that perhaps got the shaft.
In 1992, the rules were yet to be rewritten for what passes as shocking on screen. Reservoir Dogs had hit theaters just a few weeks before Ferrara’s film, and the mainstreaming of porn and the advent of gorno were more than a decade away. By the standards of the early ’90s indie boom, Bad Lieutenant was a firebomb. Keitel’s unnamed police detective leaves his suburban house, drops his kids at school, goes into work, and descends into lawless abandon—hoovering drugs, stealing money and narcotics from suspects, boozing it up, wallowing in sexual excess, and gambling tens of thousands of dollars on World Series games. A pair of scenes finds him smoking heroin in a dealer’s apartment in something like real time, then returning to shoot up, the camera unblinking as the dealer (co-writer/long-time Ferrara collaborator Zoe Lund) pumps drugs into his arm. He pulls over a pair of heavily teased Jersey girls and proceeds to sexually molest them at length without ever touching them, in one of the more unnerving scenes ever put to celluloid. And, yes, he exposes his penis to the camera during a breakdown in a dim apartment. It’s almost as if moviegoers fixated on Keitel’s nudity because it was easier than focusing on the character’s other activities.
But it turns out Ferrara’s film isn’t a mere parade of debasements. As the lieutenant’s bets drive him deeper and deeper into debt with his bookie, making him more and more lost and desperate, he has been tasked to make an arrest in the rape of a nun (Frankie Thorn). But the sister refuses to cooperate with the investigation; she has forgiven her attackers, poor kids from the neighborhood, leaving the lieutenant with nothing but empty offers of vengeance and a slow-dawning vision of grace. And in his sweaty, keening, animal way, Keitel’s character makes a grab for the latter. It wouldn’t do to give Ferrara too much credit here—the way he reveals the nun’s statuesque naked body to the lieutenant, and the viewer, exposes his exploitative grindhouse core—but his heavily improvised Noo Yawk fever-dream of a film is far more canny and resonant that its rep, and Keitel’s performance is enormously brave in ways not measured by skin exposed.
Director Amat Escalante’s 2008 Los Bastardos (Kino) garnered some buzz during its run on the festival circuit for some of its more shocking bits, and with good reason. Escalante’s camera patiently falls in with two illegal Mexican day laborers, Jesus (Jesus Moises Rodriguez) and Fausto (Ruben Sosa), as they scrounge up a back-breaking construction job and spend some of their meager pay on a few staples. Long takes, sparse dialog, and an unvarnished focus on the reality of such marginalized characters seems to locate Los Bastardos in the recent school of neo-neo-realist filmmaking. But the brief blast of hardcore that accompanies the opening credits hints that this isn’t another Chop Shop or Wendy and Lucy, and sure enough, it turns out that Jesus and Fausto have another, more lucrative job to do. And before the night is over, the walls of a suburban house belonging to middle-class gringo mom Karen (Nina Zavarin) are covered in blood.
Escalante isn’t an exploitation filmmaker, and he seems to be getting at the emptied-out spaces in the lives, and ultimately in the souls, of men like Jesus and Fausto. Their day-to-day existences, as glimpsed here, seem purgatorial; their real lives are back in Mexico and any pleasures in the here and now are deferred. (Rodriguez, whether by design or exquisite happenstance, constantly stares but never seems to be looking where he is.) Karen, a hypocritical high-functioning druggie with a distant teenage son, has a fairly pathetic existence, but by their standards, she’s got it made: a full fridge, a TV, a pool out back. No matter what the man who hired them might have assumed, Jesus and Fausto aren’t murderers, so a fairly adroit dance of intimacies, indulgences, and sympathies develops between the intruders and their victim. Escalante’s climax is sure to make you jump in your seat, though ultimately it seems like the easy way out. These jolts don’t do anything but jolt.