REVIEW: Woody Harrelson's Menace Yields Diminishing Returns in Rampart
The last few months have provided us with some iconic imagery of police violence in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement -- Lt. John Pike casually pepper spraying a group of UC Davis students like he's Febrezing a sofa, 84-year-old Dorli Rainey being helped away from a confrontation in Seattle after being doused herself, Marine Scott Olsen getting carried out through a haze of tear gas in Oakland with a fractured skull. These recent events lend Oren Moverman's Rampart a queasy immediacy even though it's set in the '90s, as the LAPD's Rampart Division struggles through the notorious police misconduct scandal that ended up implicating dozens of officers and inspired the likes of Training Day and The Shield.
Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), the bad, bad beat cop -- the self-proclaimed "one cop who gets it" -- at the film's center, wields far heavier artillery than a canister of spray and regularly crosses major lines of corruption and brutality, but the psychological core stands -- there's room to hide or rationalize away almost anything in the name of maintaining authority, upholding order, us against them and any means necessary.
Both enthralling and draining, Rampart is a claustrophobic account of Brown's downward spiral, or at least an accelerating chunk of it -- things haven't been going quite right for him for a while. Brown is, as his teenager daughter tells him caustically to his face, a "dinosaur," a would-be mix of Dirty Harry and John Wayne who's at least half as smart as he's convinced he is. It's a dream of a role for Harrelson, who's the camera's constant quavering focus, and who keeps us torn between being drawn in and repulsed by this disastrous, magnetic character. And we're not the only ones -- Brown may not have many friends, but he gets applause when he strolls back into the station after being suspended for nearly beating a man do death on camera, and he's able to temporarily charm the ladies against their better judgment. "Oh, well," a one-night-stand sighs in the afterglow of their assignation, as if only then coming to terms with the type of man she just slept with. He lives with an unlikely brood of women who are growing increasingly sick of his presence -- his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who happen to be sisters, and their two daughters, caustic teen Helen (Brie Larson) and the younger Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky).
The threat of his family dissolving and leaving him alone is shaking Brown's universe, but not as much as the thought that he'll be fired or forced to retire from the LAPD. Being a cop is his everything -- the film tracks him cruising the streets in a black-and-white, chain-smoking in his mirrored aviator sunglasses, his preening self-image projecting so strong it basically becomes fact. But being a cop doesn't mean the same thing it did when he started. "This used to be a glorious soldiers' department," he tells a female rookie (Stella Schnabel, daughter of Julian), "and now it's you." Not long after, he tells her, "This is a military occupation, kid, emergency law," and just how much he buys into the bullshit he's spouting becomes the film's central question. Any sliver of serious self-awareness, any betrayal of his own one-man-against-the-world ideology could bring everything tumbling down, though an examination of his recent actions by a D.A. investigator (Ice Cube) promises to force the issue.
Moverman, whose previous film, 2009's very good home front drama The Messenger, also featured Harrelson, co-wrote Rampart with crime laureate James Ellroy, and the latter's nihilism and feel for the grimy side of L.A. are all over this film. While it provides a watchable, nuanced portrait of man in crisis, it's an insistently one-note affair, repeated until it induces a splitting headache. Brown is one hell of a difficult person to spend a hundred minutes with, and though his desperation grows over the course of the film, as the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi show up to try and manage the PR disasters he's sparked, as he begins an affair with a criminal defense lawyer (Robin Wright) he seems drawn to primarily because of what a terrible idea it is, as his shady retired source on department goings-on (Ned Beatty) presents him with questionable info, he doesn't change. He's consumed with the concept that he's being set up, but the trouble he's in is all his own fault -- he's calcified into the kind of man the world would happily use as a half-deserving scapegoat.
The film's loose camerawork aims to capture Brown's growing disorientation on his path toward oblivion, but it often draws distracting attention to itself, the seams showing -- one conversation is deliberately staged so that you can only see the back of the listener's head, and another is shot upwards from under a table so that it obscures half the screen. As Brown lurches toward self-destruction, we start to long for him to find it. He's obviously not interested in fixing anything, and that leaves only his sad but utterly earned solitary trudge toward some form of closure that neither he, nor we, will find in the film.
[Editor's note: This review was previously published, in slightly different form, during Rampart's awards-qualifying run in Nov. 2011.]