Directed by Abel Ferrara
Spoiling the hell outta this one so don’t read it unless you’ve seen it. SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!!! Just skip to my final word.
This is my second Ferrara, and after the more over the top remake by Herzog (which I have mixed feelings about) as well as my finding King of New York to only be moderately enjoyable, I was skeptical as to whether I would even like this film.
Surprisingly, I loved it.
My aforementioned love for Taxi Driver may have something to do with that, as this film most certainly feels more kin to that film than either of the films I associated with it (the remake/spin off and King of New York in case your comprehension ain’t none too good) and that’s a very good thing. Ferrara alternates between a cold, clinical cinematic approach, placing the camera from a mostly fixed location and following the action, making the audience feel like a voyeur to The Lieutenant’s downward spiral, to a handheld view which often puts us in the shoes of him, making us genuinely feel his disorientation to the world around him.
It is a rambling, oddly paced, and often ugly (subject matter wise) that will surely be off putting to some. In many ways, the titular character feels not unlike the protagonist of the Norwegian film Insomnia, in which he is equally if not more so disturbed than the person(s) he is hunting. But where Stellan Skargard is maintains an eeriely still, chilly demeanor no matter the actions he is taking, Keitel is absolutely volatile and electric.
Both Keitel and Cage deliver comparable performances of men on the edge, as their respective officers of ill repute. But where Cage is hilariously insane, never losing the comical side to his man on the edge, Keitel conveys a darkness within his character that is harrowing to watch. I had heard of his infamous nude scene (which I don’t completely understand why it is so “infamous), but I didn’t expect it to be one of the most gripping scenes in the entire film as well as one of the best of recent memory. The music, the long takes, the strange lesbianism that hints at BDSM, Keitel’s crucifixion pose and baby whining; it all culminates in a moment that is as haunting as it is hypnotic, embodying the entire underlying themes of the film.
The two women are dressed quite differently. One is blonde and naked, the other, a brunette, is dressed in a robe that hides her body completely. The brunette wraps the tie around and tries to control the blonde’s movement, holding her up against her tightly. The two of them represent two powerful aspects of human nature: The blonde- hunger/desire and the brunette- order. Keitel soon joins them and they stand in an embrace of eroticism, he is stuck in between the chaos caused by desire and the things that are supposed to bring him order. Then he is left naked, alone, and crying because neither indulgence brings him peace. He is a hollow, empty man.
And that is what this movie is about. The Lieutenant is a man of the edge between complete indulgence and the order that his job is supposed to represent. Again and again the film takes on a nihilistic perspective of the world. These things that we try to find solace in to order our lives mean nothing to the chaos within us. Drugs, sex, violence, religion, jobs, none of it means anything in the face of our chaotic nature and we will only crave more. When the nun is raped there is a conversation about what monsters could rape a nun, and that is precisely the point. Nothing is sacred and nothing is safe. The Lieutenant begs for forgiveness from Jesus only the have reality come in and reveal that he is hallucinating. There is no salvation for him there, just as there is none at the end of a needle, nor are there consequences for his incessantly evil acts, like when he forces a girl to expose herself and another time mime sucking him off while he jerks off, blackmailing them by using his badge.
He is a man caught in limbo, repeatedly trying the same things, the same solutions, and gets the same problems. This is not so subtly demonstrated in a metaphor of his gambling, where he simply keeps doubling his debt and placing the same bet over and over again until there is now way out of the hole he’s dug himself.
It is in this realization that he tries to do something different once he catches his rapist perps, which by at this point he has realized he is very similar: He tries forgiveness. The scene in which he does that is endlessly tense due to Ferrara’s keen eye for camera placement and Keitel’s completely unhinged performance. He feels as though he could blow both their heads apart at the drop of a hat. But even when he sends them on their way, we can sense that it is too late. He’s gone too far for too long. So when he stops for a moment, and we hear “Hey cop!” then gunshots, it is altogether shocking yet unavoidable. The camera lingers on his corpse for far too long as the people gather around, gradually realizing what happens. I feel we are supposed to get a sense that he is finally at peace.
This is an endlessly hopeless film and that is sure to turn many viewers off. But it is also a spectacularly well made film and that is what I love about it. I spent a lot of time in this review waxing about the themes, but that is all secondary because this film is incredible. There are so many scenes, many mentioned in here, that would function spectacularly even on a superficial standard.
My final word is this: If you want to watch a dense block of ugliness that is finely crafted and feels more akin to 60’s and 70’s cinema than its 90’s contemporaries, and love films like Taxi Driver, watch this movie. I loved it and maybe you will too. If you don’t like slow, depressing movies, what’s wrong with you? You’re writing off a whole ton of great cinema, like this very film! So go watch it.