Oren Moverman, James Ellroy
Woody Harrelson, Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty, Cynthia Nixon
R for pervasive language, sexual content and some violence
In his second feature Rampart, director Oren Moverman shows the darker side of human nature.
The dirtiest cop you’ve seen on the big screen in some time, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) does what he wants and doesn’t give a shit who stands in his way. The film opens on him, his rookie partner and another cop standing by their patrol cars eating lunch. The rookie protests about eating her French fries, yet Dave’s forceful demeanor and insistence on her completing the endeavor prepare us for the unreasonable nature of the character we’re about to see.
The action begins when an errant car crashes into Dave’s patrol car; he leaps from the car yelling at the opposing driver who scrambles out of his car and begins running away. Dave pursues and, instead of standard police procedure for apprehending the suspect, he tackles him and begins beating the crap out of him. It isn’t until the incident is broadcast on the news, caught by a passery-by’s phone camera, that his aberrant behavior is called into question. The impending lawsuit and defense leaves him struggling for cash leading him to perform a desperate unethical and illegal act to cover it all, further worsening his legal morass.
Harrelson has played some of the sweetest, kindest characters television and motion pictures has seen and although his complex soldier in Oren Moverman’s previous film The Messenger had his share of flaws, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Harrelson this in control of such a loathsome character. He came closest in his layered performance as Larry Flynt in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but in that film his snarky asides and courageous fight for free speech make him an ultimately likable character. Here, there is no such veneer. This is a crooked, vicious, hateful cop who handles justice in his own way, damned be those who get in his way. And if you like Dave Brown at all, it’s because of his surprisingly tender relationship with his two ex-wives and daughters. The one time he finds serenity and sees how wrong he is comes in a reflection of how his daughters see him. His public life protrudes into his private and risks the few things he holds precious.
Moverman’s second film isn’t as emotionally powerful as his first, but one thing’s for certain. He knows how to wrench the best work out of Harrelson. There’s something relateable, yet repulsive about this carnivorous beast fighting for survival. You can’t help but feel for his sudden fall from grace while detesting every action the character makes. He is the outward vocalization of our inner demons, he simply isn’t in control of them. Rampart is far from the perfect film. There are some situations that feel all too familiar, but its in Harrelson’s performance that the film lives and breathes. Even experienced thespians Ned Beatty and Sigourney Weaver can’t help but be pulled along by his gravity. Beatty submits a fine performance, though perhaps one we’ve seen a handful of times before. It’s a rough, grave performance that supporting Oscars were made for.
Police corruption has been handled in many ways on both film and television, but Rampart gives us a slightly new angle. Instead of a hierarchical malfeasance being on display, here we have one man performing questionable acts while his superiors are ashamed of the behavior. There are cops who cheer him on at points in the film, though more for his desire to stand up to public pressure than as a celebration of his undeniably callous acts. Add in Beatty’s mobster-like character, performing behind the scenes machinations for Dave trying to get his ass out of the fire and you have enough differences to make the film distinct enough to engage the limited audience for this type of film.
Probables: Actor (Woody Harrelson)
Potentials: Supporting Actor (Ned Beatty), Original Screenplay
Unlikelies: Supporting Actress (Sigourney Weaver)
December 1, 2011