Though not as feted as many of his contemporaries, Abel Ferrara has made some of the darkest, most ambitious American films of the last 30 years. While his films often take place within urban landscapes that border on the Gomorran, his best work is marked by an interiority that finds the true heart of darkness within man himself. His protagonists are crooked messiahs: artists, cops and criminals struggling against the undertow of their hostile surroundings, blurring the lines between heroes and villains in the process. While the last 15 years have seen Ferrara produce some of the best work of his career, his latest film, Pasolini, will only be the second of his pictures to get a UK theatrical release during that period. It is clear that a comprehensive critical rehabilitation is long overdue.
Ms. 45 (1981)
The rape-revenge arc and hard-boiled title may root Ms. 45 in the exploitation tradition, but Ferrara’s vision is far more audacious. Zoe Lund plays Thana, the picture’s avenging angel, exacting random and violent retribution on the men of New York. The film’s stroke of genius is the way the psychic toll of Thana’s rapes precipitates the mental shutdown required to inflict an equal and opposite reaction. Lund’s tragic real-life trajectory is a key extratextual factor in the narrative of Ferrara’s art – the horrors of addiction are evident in the dichotomy between the youthful ingénue in Ms. 45 and the ravaged woman shooting up in Bad Lieutenant (which she also co-wrote) a decade later. The spectre of her self-destruction continues to haunt his work to this day.
Fear City (1984)
Though lacking the rich thematic textures that would come to define his later narratives of urban grit, Fear City is the quintessential early Ferrara policier – a lurid chronicle of nocturnal misdeeds, awash with salaciousness. Populated by strippers, boxers and crooks, its vision of New York has an exaggerated ripped-from-the-headlines slant. It is prime pulp, albeit underscored by a palpable sense of genuine malaise; as always with Ferrara, there is the constant shift between repulsion and attraction to this milieu. Fear City would become a blueprint for many of his later films, serving as the stylistic foundation for pictures as disparate as glossy folly Cat Chaser (1989) and fin-de-siècle marvel ’R-Xmas (2001).
King of New York (1990)
Unlike the work of many of his contemporaries, Ferrara’s films are not derailed by big performances – they adjust to them. The best examples filter the director’s thematic concerns through performances of unhinged grandeur. In this sense, Harvey Keitel and Christopher Walken are the embodiments of the 90s Ferrara aesthetic. King of New York is the definitive performance that Walken gave in a Ferrara film. An anchor in a tempest, he dictates the picture’s shape. It is one of the very few post-New Hollywood mainstream films to replicate that movement’s nihilistic bent with such bruising authenticity. It gave the New York of 1990 the Taxi Driver it deserved – frantic, morbid and on the verge of madness.
Bad Lieutenant (1992)
With Bad Lieutenant, Ferrara equated the death drive of his protagonist with that of New York itself, entwining the fate of both the man and the city. While they are initially pitted against each other – a recurring motif sees the lieutenant betting on the Dodgers, the team that would eventually leave Brooklyn for Los Angeles – it becomes apparent that Harvey Keitel’s titular cop will become a conduit of New York’s salvation. The picture’s religious arc – a vivid parade of depravity and subsequent redemption – makes it Ferrara’s rendition of a passion play for his hometown: bleak, painful, but rigorously moral.
Dangerous Game (1993)
Ferrara has made two films about filmmaking – The Blackout (1997) and Dangerous Game, both of which present the process as an exaggerated state of crisis. The former plays as a fragmentary genre piece; a narcotic haze in which the act of creation is precariously pursued. The latter is a more direct vision of directorial culpability – a vicious, self-lacerating work of metatextual catharsis. Harvey Keitel is Ferrara’s surrogate, fashioning art out of turbulence in a Los Angeles caught between glitter and doom. But the standout is Madonna, in her greatest film role. Ferrara riffs on the idea of an actor martyred for her director’s vision by slipping seamlessly between text and the text within it. It’s a revealing, self-critical insight into his process.
The Addiction (1995)
The story of a philosophy student (Lili Taylor) who turns into a vampire and struggles to control her thirst for blood, The Addiction is arguably Ferrara’s finest film. Not only does it operate as an allegory for addiction, it filters some of the key philosophical questions of our time through the lens of the affliction. For the addict, addiction is an immediate and present concern, but by invoking the vampire mythology’s obsession with history, Ferrara crafts a carefully deliberated dialectic of substance abuse, covering everything from the nature of evil to the cult of sobriety. It is all the more impressive that is was made almost 15 years before Ferrara himself would get sober.
New Rose Hotel (1998)
Ferrara closed out the 90s with his last thriller to date. A contemplative William Gibson adaptation that betrays a wariness of what is to come, New Rose Hotel is a fitting coda to his remarkable work during the decade. Zoe Lund wrote the first draft of the picture; she would die the year it was released, adding to its palpable sense of finality. The digital anxiety is particularly resonant in retrospect, especially given the changes to film production that would follow in the new century. Ferrara would adapt to them, making some of his best work, but his cultural influence would inevitably diminish.
Mulberry St. (2010)
In the late 2000s, Ferrara made three documentaries in quick succession – Chelsea on the Rocks (2008), Napoli Napoli Napoli (2009) and Mulberry St. While each deals with the concept of roots, the latter is the one that brings us closest to Ferrara and his idea of home. It works as a counterpoint to Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974) – Scorsese’s is a story of transition from Italy to America, whereas Ferrara’s is a transition from one kind of city to another. It is the first time the director himself would appear in his films as just another voice on the street – he makes the common history his own.
4:44 Last Day on Earth (2011)
Much of Ferrara’s American output in the 21st century has considered the essence of New York post-Giuliani. The thread begins with ’R-Xmas, which captures the city in transition – from David Dinkins’ single term to Rudy Giuliani’s transformative decade. The subsequent films consider what was lost in the process – the answer is Ferrara’s city. 4:44 Last Day on Earth closes the cycle by bringing the apocalypse to New York. Willem Dafoe plays an artist facing his final 24 hours before the world ends. His encounters are born of authorial catharsis for Ferrara, with ghosts of his own tumultuous path rearing their heads at every turn. It’s a monumental achievement on his part – a brooding, self-reflexive masterpiece, mournful of what is lost, but strangely serene about the exit state.
Welcome to New York (2014)
Based on former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for the sexual assault of a Manhattan hotel chambermaid in 2011, Welcome to New York is a vivid, animalistic expression of the rotten heart of modern white-collar masculinity. Gerard Depardieu pitches his Devereaux as a monstrously skewed King Lear for the 21st century. Unfettered privilege has turned him into a base predator, engaging in a constant cycle of sexual liaisons, which he pursues with a morose degree of anti-sensuality. It is a de-eroticised ritual of power that is brilliantly reversed as he falls prey to the US justice system – one beast at the mercy of another. The astonishing final act sees the film closing in on itself, becoming a fatalistic treatise on evil, culpability and performance.