A lot of movies are pitched as “redemption” stories. A person is caught in a web of his or her own making, having made one bad choice, which leads to another bad choice, which leads eventually to being so entangled that the person may never get free—until someone comes along and opens up a way to freedom. Or the self-destructive path ends in a lowest-point, dead-end place, into which help unexpectedly comes.
I wonder, though, about the theological value of many so-called redemption stories. Are they anything other than a person simply getting a second chance to do what’s right? Sometimes in the second act, things are going well for the main character, but he or she hasn’t dealt with some past action or event. The person was in a bad place before, but after a brief period where his life seemed to be coming together, he ends up destroying the good he’s rebuilt, before he reaches the actual low point, from where he might actually turn things around (cf. The Way Back).
What actually is redemption? In a broad theological sense, it is something done to or for you so that you are released from that to which (or to whom) you were enslaved. It may lead to better living or better choices or better actions, but those are the results and not the conditions of redemption. Literally, the various words for “redeem” in the Scriptures generally revolve around the idea of release for someone because of a sacrifice or price paid of some kind. The question is whether or not there is a price that someone could pay in order to redeem himself.
In Bad Lieutenant (1992; streaming on HBO Max or for rent on Amazon Prime [to be clear, this is the R-rated version, not the NC-17]), Abel Ferrara explores the nature of that price, and whether or not anyone can pay it for himself. Amazon’s synopsis describes Harvey Keitel’s eponymous, lapsed-Catholic lieutenant as “a New York City cop on a fast track to hell.” For three quarters of the movie, that’s about all we get: a downward spiral of drugs and gambling set to the soundtrack of New York City as the Dodgers and Mets play the National League Championship Series.
The Mets are down 3-0 in the series, and the lieutenant is taking bets that the Mets will come back and win, even as he himself is betting against them. As the Mets start winning games, he’s caught between the two-sided pressure of having to pay those to whom he’s lost bets, as well as to pay those from whom he’s been taking bets. Other than placing and taking bets, his life consists of snorting and injecting drugs, and drinking to balance the high. Almost everyone else in the movie is merely part of the backdrop to his self-destruction. He is the embodiment of what one of his drug dealers says to him: “Vampires are lucky; they get to feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves… We gotta eat away at ourselves until there’s nothing left but appetite.”
Bad Lieutenant often feels like a not-so-frantic Uncut Gems. The lieutenant seems to trust that his position in the police will protect him from the most serious consequences of his actions. He keeps playing, refusing to admit that he won’t win, in spite even of a warning from his bookie. Howard Ratner, likewise, never wavers in his belief that, someday, he will come out on top. All he needs is just one big win and he will have it made. His optimism is unshakable, even when it becomes clear that his hope is nothing but mist and wind. The only difference in the end is that the lieutenant is confronted with a series of actions that do not fit into his ideas of winning, losing, and justice, whereas nothing is able to dissuade Howard.
That series of actions revolves around a nun who has been brutalized, while the church was profaned and vandalized. He sees her in the hospital, and later while she’s being interviewed, and he listens in on her confession. And then, finally, he finds her kneeling in front of the altar in the church. He says that she should know that her attackers and rapists are going to spend hardly any time in jail, and that because they’re young, they’re going to be set free far sooner than they should be. But he says he will “beat the system and do justice, real justice.” All she will say is that she forgives them.
Here is where the movie takes a step beyond anything I expected. The lieutenant says what people are thinking: how can you do that? How can you forgive them? And more than that, how can you forgive them and refuse to speak their names, knowing that they are free on the street to do the same thing again? He says, “Can you bear that burden, sister?”
The answer is that she can’t. So instead of rationalizing her forgiveness, she simply says, “Talk to Jesus. Pray. You do believe in God, don’t you? That Jesus Christ died for your sins?”—and, by implication, the sins of the rapists. She allows him to take her rosary as she walks away, leaving him grasping at air.
We see all around us the “shocking” sins that Keitel’s character commits. This world, in spite of its virtuous protestations, revels in it. But this sort of forgiveness is always going to be more shocking to people bound by self-righteousness—self-righteous, at least, in comparison with others. As his drug dealer says, “Give crazy. Give to make sense ain’t worth it.” And then, “No one will ever understand why you did it. They’ll forget about you tomorrow. But you gotta do it.”
The question is, what has to be done, and who has to do it? While she’s speaking, we see an image of Christ on the cross (which the lieutenant is apparently hallucinating), and then the mosaic in the ground of the church, which is a pelican-in-her-piety (a pelican piercing her own breast to feed her young with her own blood), an ancient symbol for Christ. But we’re not sure if she’s talking about Jesus or to the lieutenant, and so we’re not sure what he’s going to do in response to this, or whether he’s even heard her.
The hallucinations (visions?) don’t end there. As soon as the nun leaves, the lieutenant sees the church aisle narrowed and blurry, and suddenly we see a bloody, thorn-crowned Jesus standing there. We are not, I think, certain about what to do with this image. Is it an easy Deus ex machina for the lieutenant’s redemption? Is it a God-in-the-dock attempt at asking the old question about God and the existence of evil? It could be taken both ways. But in my opinion Ferrara manages to walk the very thin line between them, and we do not get easy answers or platitudes out of this encounter.
Keitel does his best acting here, and it is wrenching to watch as he alternates between grief, shame, guilt, blasphemy, and possible repentance. He screams and curses the silent Jesus, and asks the sorts of questions that human beings ask: “You stand there and You want me to do every f***ing thing? Where were You? Where the hell were You?” Because our quarrel with the nun’s forgiveness isn’t really with her, but with Him.
After kissing the bloody foot, he looks up and sees that there is actually a middle-aged, black woman holding a chalice, which she had come to return to “where it belongs. It’s a holy thing, a holy thing.” But she is still holding it as they leave the church, while she tells him where the boys are hiding out. And as he find the strung-out criminals in a basement watching the Mets and Dodgers, we are confronted with questions: what should he do? What will he do? And will what he does with them do anything to set him on the right road?
He hand-cuffs them and gives them the rest of his drugs. But he sits next to them and takes his own hits off their pipe. Whether he realizes it or not, we do: he’s not above them, or different from them. All three of them sit in the exact same place, high and wicked, about to be humbled. Until they stop in front of the bus station, we’re not sure where he’s going to take them. But he hasn’t forgotten the nun. Just before he takes them into the station, he says, “She forgives you. How could she forgive that? She forgives you slimy little bastards. How could she forgive a thing like that?”
Here we are brought back to the question about redemption. If this were a different movie, Keitel’s lieutenant would do this “good” action, he would be reunited with his wife and kids, he would go to rehab, and he would get sober and straight. It’s actually a possibility as he’s walking away from the bus and “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace starts to play. But then he pulls up in front of Penn Station, and everything finally catches up with him.
Finally, though, we’re left without a clear answer. Is he redeemed by the price he pays? Is there redemption in letting the offenders get on the bus? In what sense? Is he even doing the “right” thing by letting them go? In the real world (in which the perpetrators of a very similar crime were apprehended), I would say that people can be forgiven without avoiding the temporal consequences of their actions. In the world of the film, is it actually part of the lieutenant’s contrition, because he wants to take vengeance on behalf of the nun? Perhaps he knows he will if they stay in the city?
And in what sense would most people call the ending of the movie redemptive? Does his one “virtuous” action balance in any way at all the extent of his “vice”? Clearly not. It doesn’t even balance out in terms of the movie. (This is, by the way, not a movie I really recommend. It is about as bleak and dark as it gets. But it contains two incredibly powerful scenes, here and here. Warning: the second one contains very strong language and blasphemy, but is worth watching, in my opinion.)
We are left, then, with a life that can’t be balanced out by one or a thousand good actions. There is nothing the lieutenant can do that will make him not “bad.” He receives the wages of his sin. But because of that and not in spite of it, the witness of the nun’s forgiveness and the very subtle motion of the bloody Christ moving His hand toward the crawling and broken man contains an image of shocking and incredible grace far beyond most other stories of so-called “redemption.”