Bright Lights Film Journal

Crack Christ: The Excess and the Ecstasy of Bad Lieutenant

“Lord, my Lord! How true it is that whoever work for you is paid in troubles.”
~ St. Teresa of Avila
Junkies and saints know about giving. After shooting up with the nameless police lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), a strung-out Magdalene, mistress, dealer (screenwriter Zoë Lund) describes the paradox in which she lives, “We give and give and give crazy … Til there’s nothing left but appetite.” Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is a Christian odyssey of appetite and giving. The lieutenant (LT) is a bottomless pit — smoking, snorting, shooting, and debasing his way toward ecstasy, salvation and martyrdom. From father, to saint, to savior — barreling through the streets, alleys and stairwells of humanity, colliding with peasants, saints and clergy to do holy works — LT is the modern man-god. Along the way, he grapples with Satan (Darryl Strawberry in a fictitious series playoff game between the NY Mets and LA Dodgers), forgives sinners (with drugs, money, and freedom), and is sacrificed.

The story opens with LT driving his two children to school while listening to a radio jock prophesy an impossible reversal of fortune in the Mets-0 Dodgers-3, seven game series. Angry because the boys missed the bus, he grumbles and curses his way to their school. Despite his fury, his anger is askew — not quite directed at the boys themselves, but instead (in their defense) directed at Aunt Wendy, whom the boys blame for “hogging the bathroom.” “Aunt Wendy’s not the boss! I’m the boss! If it’s your turn to use the bathroom, you tell aunt Wendy to get the fuck out! If she doesn’t, call me! I’ll throw her the fuck out!” Having to insist, rather pathetically, that he’s the boss, not Aunt Wendy, introduces us, at the film’s onset, to an exiled ego desperate for renewal: an aggressive humility that, like his aggressive debauchery, will burst and blaze a path straight up to heaven. Although preoccupied with the series that will be his undoing, he’s not one to ignore his children — attentive to their frustration, absorbing and deflecting what they cannot control.

The children on screen pose a striking contrast to a character that, on the surface, seems devoted to evil for evil’s sake. A girl watches him pillage her father’s liquor, at home the baby hovers while he wakes comatose on the living room sofa; children appear to gravitate toward him. In another scene, at home in the middle of the night, LT cuts lines of cocaine on the photos of his daughter’s first communion before checking on the children sleeping; his tenderness is always framed in blasphemy. Of all his earthly attachments to be abandoned for the ensuing quest, the children weigh heaviest on him. But a holy quest requires the hero to renounce all of man’s establishments, even dethrone himself of his household: the expressions of his wife toward him and her addressing him as “Strawberry” illustrate his departure. Sitting in the car with his boys, the clamor of the playoffs in the foreground (signaling dramatic shifts throughout the film like a soundtrack) marks the beginning of his journey. After a parting, affectionate kiss from his son, LT snorts a spoonful of coke and begins his descent.

No institution brings LT to a crime scene. No dispatcher or chief dictates where he’ll land next. Crimes happen and he is there — not as enforcer but sin’s profiteer — foraging insatiably for drugs and money, rendezvousing with dealers, gawking at the breasts of murder victims, from scene to scene, falling with relentless momentum. A saint of criminals, LT makes no arrests. The money he takes from petty thieves, the drugs he shares with his connections are immediately consumed, wasted and transgressed by his increasingly voracious appetite for oblivion. The consumption of intoxicants by LT is so excessive, it defies addiction: he’s in complete control of his self-destruction and therefore in company with the great martyred saints. Drugs sustain his momentum; they are the wings that carry him into the abyss, but as tools of transgression they are ultimately rendered meaningless as he comes closer to erasing his existence. In desecrating his body, he is able to sever it from the self; the severed self is the pearl of Christian mysticism. Excess propels the saint toward grace — St. Sebastian’s arrows, St. Joan’s voices, St. Teresa’s fits of rapture — God’s work can only be done when the flesh is freed from the chains of reason.

On his nightly rounds, LT spots two cute young girls in a car and immediately pulls them over. It’s raining as he approaches the car window and begins asking them questions about where they were and if their parents knew they were out. He threatens to take them in for a broken taillight. The girls confess to him that they were at a club without their parents’ permission, dancing, drinking and getting high. LT says, “you’ve been bad girls” and we know penance is due. He asks the driver to simulate oral sex while he masturbates standing in the rain. As he grimaces, grunts and curses himself, the puzzled girls sit safe and dry in their car, reluctantly compliant with his seedy requests. Their expressions are tinged with a vague humiliation — not their own, but humiliation for him, embarrassment on behalf of him — like Christ, he is the man-god who humiliates himself — ridiculed and lashed by the Roman soldiers whom he will later die for the sins of. An inverted man of the cloth, LT hears the girls’ confession and by taking their shame upon himself, absolves them of their sins through the ritual sacrifice of their shame as manifest by his self-deprecating display. LT has no predatorily sexual motives; on the contrary, his deviances renounce sexuality. Even when landing in the arms of prostitutes earlier in the film, it is only for the purpose of prostrating himself before God.

Only a case involving the rape of a nun interrupts the cycle of LT’s excess. The nun was raped on a church altar by two teens from the adjoining Catholic school. The rape sequence is juxtaposed to a screaming Christ on the cross, which (in its awkwardness) robs the scene of some of its violence. During the nun’s examination in the hospital, the doctor notates her injuries aloud while LT peeps at her luminous naked body. Later, at the church, he eavesdrops on her confession. Although she knows the boys, she won’t give up their names, even in the bound secrecy of confession. She merely laments that she couldn’t “turn their bitter semen into love … they didn’t love me, but I should have loved them. Jesus loved those who reviled him.” Her contrition sets him on a collision course with his faith where Satan (Darryl Strawberry) waits to possess his soul.

While drug use separates the saint from his body, the pennant race represents earthly obsessions and anchors the man-god to earthly doubts. The power hitter Strawberry’s inability to carry more than three games against the increasingly miraculous Mets comeback brings LT to the brink of spiritual crisis. To believe the Mets may win it all (on the divine game number seven) is an act of pure faith. Doubling his debts against what he believes, he continues to reinvest in catastrophe and courts death by refusing to pay a dangerous loan shark what is due. A man of God, he is indifferent to the threats of mere men but still a slave to their hierarchies, their illusions of power, which he is obsessed with outwitting. His obsession with the series is one with Satan, with doubt — Darryl Strawberry and his soon-to-be doomed Dodgers stand between the man-god and his salvation. LT, consumed in spiritual crisis, continues to gamble his flesh on Strawberry, who represents its limits.

Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. [John 12:3]

Twice in the film, each time preceding the film’s most dramatic scenes, LT visits his red-haired junkie girl friend (Zoë Lund), who gingerly tends to his drug needs in long, meditative close-ups. After dosing herself, she methodically ties a tourniquet to his arm, swelling the vein ripe for the needle. LT sits on the toilet, falling deeper into a heroine “nod,” while the proverbial mistress describes in soliloquy the self-sacrificing transgression of desire — the fated obligation of both heroine addict and saint. “Vampires are lucky. They can feed off others. We eat away at ourselves. We have to eat our legs to have energy to walk. We have to come, in order to go. We have to suck ourselves off. We have to eat away at ourselves … ‘Til there’s nothing left but appetite.” She closes with a reference to the gospel of Matthew, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a sinner — up to seven times? To which Jesus replies, “seventy times seven” (Magdalene is also called “the one whom He had driven out seven demons.”).

Enter our disheveled prince into the desecrated church where the raped nun is praying. He kneels beside her to offer real justice, revenge for the crime committed against her. She says that she’s already forgiven them. Unable to accept her forgiveness, he questions her right to do so. In fact, the two are kindred spirits. Like the nun, he rejects the authority of the church and is embattled in spiritual turmoil: she is ashamed of not creating life from the sins of her rapists and he is being devoured by her ability to forgive them due to his own lack of faith which (fully aware of) she defers to. “Do you believe in God? Pray to Jesus.” She leaves him at the altar and he falls to his knees, Gethsemane style, squealing in divine anguish and looks up to a vision of the silent bleeding Christ standing in the aisle — “You got somethin’ to say to me? You rat fuck! You want me to do everything? I’m too fuckin’ weak!” Succumbing to His grace, LT crawls to kiss Christ’s feet but looks up to see a woman from the neighborhood holding the ciborium the rapists pawned. The woman says “It’s a holy thing” and directs him to where the boys stay.

LT enters a concrete tenement where a junkie dances for the boys sitting on a couch. Game seven is on the TV. Now aware of his divine purpose, resigned of earthly desire, spiritual doubt, and suffering at the hands of Satan, LT is primed for the sacrifice; but first he performs an ultimate act of grace. With the money that would save his life (in a cigar box adorned with the Virgin Mary ), he drives the boys to a train station. Always the devoted father, he counsels, curses, slaps, cries for, and forgives them by sending them away from the certain wrath of their neighborhood, now that their guilt is exposed. Returning to the heart of the city, reborn as the savior, LT pulls his car into the final frame of the story. The final shot is the film’s only perspective from a detached, even hidden lens — the intimacy of suffering is over. LT is shot dead in a drive by beneath a banner advertising It All Happens Here.