Oren Moverman’s Rampart has under its sweaty surface a plot involving police corruption, conspiracy, double-crossing and multiple investigations. But it’s set-dressing for what is ultimately a riveting, unrelenting character study of a deeply amoral man. That man is soul-sick Los Angeles police officer David Brown (Woody Harrelson), who in the course of the movie finds himself under public and institutional scrutiny for publicly beating a civilian near to death after the man crashes into his cruiser. The film positions Brown’s downward spiral in 1999, right in the aftermath of the Rampart scandal that exposed widespread corruption and misconduct in the LAPD, allowing for the political climate of the city at the time to fuel the policeman’s paranoia as he begins to suspect that he’s being set up to take a fall for the rest of the force and salvage its reputation.
It’s interesting to position Harrelson’s performance against other dirty cops in cinema; the surreal, fascinating excesses of Nicolas Cage in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009); the operatic tragedy of Harvey Keitel’s dirty cop in Abel Ferrara’s original Bad Lieutenant (1992); Denzel Washington’s flamboyantly evil detective in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day (2001). Harrelson’s David Brown is in a lower key, though still given to bouts of rage. But there’s a casual, every-day easiness to David’s cruelty and misconduct that makes it more insidious than the grand gestures of those other examples, as if he’s just one random example of a more endemic sickness in the system. David, a Vietnam vet, feels entitled to breaking the rules because he’s steeped in a culture of corruption and violence (the previous generation represented here by Ned Beatty’s leering LAPD oldboy Hartshorn) that his father was too.
Harrelson creates a remarkable portrayal of an unrepentant man forced to finally do penance, even if it isn’t official—he barely gets so much as a slap on the wrist throughout the movie, even though he’s constantly under investigation and on the brink of suspension or worse. The fallout is personal, with his family (two ex-wives and their two daughters) finally distancing themselves from him and beginning to rip the band-aids off the emotional wounds he’s left on them by using his career as a policeman to indulge his basest instincts. David’s blunt, simplistic justification of his own criminality as matching the “bad guys” of LA and beating them at their own game only makes his denial all the more pathetic and painful to watch when he asks his daughters, “Have I ever hurt you?” and is met with a look of shocked revulsion from the elder, Helen (Brie Larson).
There are brief appearances by a vast and talented ensemble including Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube and Ned Beatty, all giving fine performances as the various people in David’s life. Especially notable is Robin Wright as a deeply disillusioned district attorney who becomes involved in a mutually destructive sexual relationship with Brown. But like the plot itself, they all serve to give Harrelson a stage upon which to deliver an absorbing one-man show. And it’s one worth watching.
While the story may be disjointed and somewhat directionless, the dialogue is sharp and intelligent (the script was penned by Moverman and legendary author James Ellroy), driving the film effectively in the absence of chases and gunfights (there’s almost none of that). Moverman’s direction is flashier than in his very solid 2009 debut The Messenger (also featuring Harrelson), more dependent on lurid, murky lighting and attention-grabbing camerawork. This gives a hardboiled wash to the verisimilitude provided by the immersive sound design, on-location shooting and emphasis on character over plot and action. This works for the most part, only occasionally becoming distracting, such as during a night-club scene where Overman briefly reaches for the hallucinatory aesthetic of Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant.
Rampart is a worthy addition to the long list of movies about corrupt policemen, and an excellent showcase for what is arguably Woody Harrelson’s best (and easily Oscar-worthy) performance to date. Considering that it was co-written by James Ellroy, whose LA Confidential (1997) boasted such muscular plotting, the film’s narrative is decidedly diffuse and lacking in momentum. But Rampart’s blackened heart lies in its driven central performance. I look forward to what both Harrelson and the talented Overman bring to the table in the future.
USA 2011. Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver
Colour, HDCAM. 108 mins.