(Our London Film Festival review re-posted as Rampart is out today in the UK)
Oren Moverman’s 2009 film The Messenger – curiously only released in the UK a few months ago and out today on Blu-ray – was one of the best films of that year, and by my estimation served as a far more measured and disarming take on the War on Terror than Kathryn Bigelow’s Best Picture-winning heart-stopper The Hurt Locker. With a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Moverman and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Woody Harrelson, it’s little surprise that the two have swiftly re-teamed for this challenging take on police corruption in the late-1990s, Rampart.
The Rodney King scandal was still fresh in people’s minds as the 20th century drew to a close, perhaps few people moreso than the officers of the L.A.P.D., whose work was magnified under meticulous scrutiny by both the media and the force themselves, the former keen for a story, and tragically in the latter case, eager for a scapegoat to pin a decade’s worth of wrongs onto. It turns out that storied officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) is just the patsy the department has been looking for; already skating on thin ice for a past incident in which he allegedly murdered a serial date rapist – though it could never be proven – things turn from bad to worse when his violent lashing out after a traffic incident is caught on tape.
Even outside of Brown’s professional woes, his home life is a mess; his living arrangement with two ex-wives, who happen to be sisters, seems on the surface the stuff of ludicrous male fantasy, but Harrelson and the ladies in question – played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon – make the dynamic convincing enough with passionate performances and palpable chemistry. Other dangerous triggers in his personal life meanwhile abound; a string of sexual liaisons made awkward by his dysfunction at every level except as a ruthless cop, and in a far more convincing manner than the ex-wife juggling act, the disconnect felt by his young daughters, who just want to know their father isn’t the monster he has been made out to be.
Rampart is a film liable to be challenging to audiences, then, because it provides little in way of catharsis or more than a vague whiff of redemption for Harrelson’s troubled character; Dave seems to be beyond that, and all we can do is watch as he perseveres against the professional and personal tide about to wash over him. Earlier on we see several danger signs, what with his indiscriminate sexual encounters, endless pill-popping and cash-flow problems, that he might go all Bad Lieutenant on us, but Dave Brown is an altogether more composed character than Harvey Keitel’s manic reprobate-with-a-badge, even if his transgressions are more public, and ironically therefore, a lot more damning.
A few aspects of Rampart – which sees Moverman re-writing a script originally written by crime fiction extraordinaire James Ellroy – do admittedly feel like Vic Mackey 101; it is stylistically quite derivative of the handheld-verite style of FX’s superb show The Shield, and thematically tackles a similar trajectory of intermingling his professional acumen and familial troubles. It does, however, distinguish itself with some testing and truly distressing moral questions; as Brown is castigated for his initial beating incident, he rightly asserts that had he simply shot the victim dead in cold blood, he’d probably be slapped with a medal, while his more merciful course, regrettably caught on tape, sees him wrung out to dry. All too ironic, then, that the less-forgiving approach he takes next time at an armed robbery – shooting dead a man who turns out to be unarmed – is precisely what causes the brass to come down on him like a ton of bricks.
The key to Rampart’s success is less the thought-provoking questions it asks, however, and more the virtuoso lead performance from Woody Harrelson, who slinks into this role like a chameleon, gaunt, with a vein ever-prominently pulsing in his temple, seemingly ready to burst. Several scenes overlay the dialogue of others – more often than not people running him down – with Brown’s facial expressions, ably depicting a man on the edge unable of removing himself from it. While the subject material is not nearly as powerful as Moverman’s debut film, it is still a stirring and arresting character study, elevated considerably by Harrelson’s committed portrayal. The supporting cast members, meanwhile, are uniformly stellar; Ben Foster is scarcely unrecognisable as a homeless man holding a key to Brown’s quandary, while Robin Wright carries her biggest presence in a while as Brown’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Linda, and even Ice Cube does well with the script as an Internal Affairs investigator determined to bring Brown to his knees.
Its ambiguous conclusion may prove frustrating and unsatisfying for some, as it leaves plenty in flux, but its refusal to commit to a concrete ending instead allows us to linger on the actions that have precipitated it, and the film is stronger as a result. Woody Harrelson’s compelling performance as a man desperately trying to escape a net drawing ever tighter – yet fundamentally refusing to change his ways – ensures this gripping and gritty crime drama amounts to being more than just The Shield: The Movie.
Rampart is out now in UK cinemas.