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‘Bad Lieutenant 4K UHD’ (Blu-ray review)

Kino Lorber

Bad Lieutenant is an NC-17 grimy, vicious, and shocking New York crime film from one of the most talented exploitation directors, Abel Ferrara, that America has ever produced. It is also one of the most bracing and raw explorations of Christian existentialism ever put to film.

Not bad for a movie about the dichotomy of man.

Harvey Keitel plays the titular Lieutenant (who remains nameless throughout the film) and most of the running time is dedicated to a showcase of all his debauchery.

When two young gangbangers break into a church and rape a nun (Frankie Thorn), the Lieutenant decides to get revenge outside the law.

His plans change, however, when he learns that not only has the Nun refused to name her attackers, but she has forgiven them.

Confronted by this act of radical forgiveness, the Lieutenant realizes that if a human being can forgive another for such a personal and dehumanizing act, then surely the Lieutenant himself (who has given up on correcting his own downward spiral) is, himself, not beyond redemption in the eyes of God. The momentous weight of this epiphany shocks the Lieutenant into confronting himself honestly once before his time runs out.

The film is brutally honest about drug addiction, a long one-take sequence where the Lieutenant wakes up from a drug stupor on his couch with his children playing around him comes to mind here, and depicts sexual assault in a frank and brutal way. It is, unlike much of what we would think of as stereotypically “Christian” media, fully prepared to display the very depths of human darkness.

This, of course, lends the larger questions about redemption and meaning their bracing authenticity. Ferrera wrote and directed the film in the midst of his own troubles with addiction and his sensibility: a mix of Bresson and Ed McBain is hypnotic as it shows the unleashed id of the entire city of New York in the years immediately before Giuliani.

This authenticity permeates the film: the casting, locations, and content don’t feel like crime film cliches, they feel real. Keitel completes and enhances this with an utterly fearless performance that never succumbs to the temptation to make the Lieutenant cool. His particular high pitched whine at moments of extreme stress, like the air being let out of a balloon, underscores the ever tightening pressure of the situation.

Extras include audio commentary, making of, featurettes, and trailer.

This is a hard film to watch: it is blunt and matter of fact but all the ways in which human beings are capable of destroying themselves and others, and it comes from a director who does not believe in softening the blow. That stark familiarity with depravity though is the key to the film’s great power, and keeping the final act from feeling like a cliche.

The Lieutenant is in mortal pain, but he is not yet in Hell, and so even in the lowest depths a selfless act is possible.

Highest recommendation.


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