07 December 2011


One of the best surprises of Oscar season way back in 2009 was Oren Moverman's directorial debut The Messenger, which tackled a well-worn subject* from a surprising and fresh angle. Neither of these phrases applies to Moverman's sophomore effort, Rampart, which is a movie about a dirty cop who is also a horrible human being that hurts everyone he loves, though "love" is probably a word that only he would use; "keeps close to him so that he can all the better control them with his emotional and financial blackmail" is what most of us sane people would say.

Obviously, just because a story is familiar doesn't mean that a good filmmaker can't put his own spin on it - hell, Werner Herzog's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, is no older than The Messenger, and that managed to make an even more bog-standard "bad cop" scenario seem as new and imaginative as any movie of that year. Moverman has two strategies to differentiate Rampart from the pack - three, if you count gift wrapping the most Oscar-friendly role that Woody Harrelson (already nominated for The Messenger is ever likely to receive - and they are neither of them very good strategies. First, he and co-writer James Ellroy (that would be "legendary true-crime novelist James Ellroy" to you and me) situate Rampart in the context of real Los Angeles history back in 1999, when the infamous Rampart Scandal was in its waning days. Maybe you know exactly what that sentences means. I didn't. The short version is that in the mid-'90s, the LAPD was rocked by an investigation into the endemic racism and corruption that had turned law enforcement in that city into little more than a sick joke. And I'm sure we all remember that L.A. used to have (still has?) the most awful, racist cops in the world, but Rampart never quite gets around to contextualising itself; and with all due respect to the insular life of Southern California, but 12 years is a long time to expect your audience to remember what was, after all, a major civic crisis, not a national one.

This is nitpicking, though: while a lack of encyclopedic knowledge of Angelino politics in the 1990s robs Rampart of some thematic resonance, that's hardly going to break the movie. That leads us to Moverman's second strategy, which is to double down on nihilism and a generally rotten spirit - not misanthropy, for the film spends far too much time inveighing against its protagonist for his vile, hate-filled worldview for us to ever suppose that we are meant to sympathise with it. But that's just the problem: it spends far too much time inveighing against a vile protagonist. It spends all its time doing that. It is a movie hellbent on painting its main character as a horrible human being, which it does in the thickest, crayon-black lines. Unfortunately, the enthusiasm with which the filmmakers indict Officer "Date Rape" David Brown for his sundry failings at life leaves him as virtually nothing more than a melodrama villain, all bilious outbursts and smugness about his various crimes that he cloaks in a self-righteous cloak of American pride and fetishisation for law and order.

The plot, of which there is only a little, follows Brown's various run-ins with the disciplinary forces above him (embodied by Sigourney Weaver as a commissioner) while he continues to beat the living hell out of petty criminals who happen to end up in the wrong place while having insufficiently white skin; meanwhile, his past history involving the alleged execution of an alleged serial rapist (hence his nickname) keeps bubbling to the fore, standing in as a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the LAPD in general and this one very noxious cop in particular. The sudden loss of stability that comes from being under professional investigation is enough to destroy Brown's tenuous grip on his family sisters Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Catherine (Anne Heche), mothers of his two daughters, Helen (Brie Larson) and Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), leaving his crude sense of masculine authority foundering and in need of an outlet, and that just sets things up to be even worse.

Moverman isn't really interested in what makes Brown tick, or if he is, he goes about exploring that question in the clumsiest way possible: the character comes off like a broad, ugly cartoon character and not much at all like a human being - even as a polemic, that's no way to tell a good story. But Dave Brown is all broad strokes and no subtlety at all: the fact that he has two daughters, each born to a different woman, both of them sisters, is the sort of detail thrown out there to demonstrate that he is scuzzy, not to suggest anything deeper or more troubling about his worldview. Even the detail that Dave listens to Rush Limbaugh seems less like an attempt to draw conclusions about a conservative, nativist mindset (and Dave is a nativist, on top of it all, but you likely could have guessed that), than just a way of dogpiling on about why we're supposed to hate him. And it works, at that (probably not for viewers who are themselves nativist Limbaugh fans, though I don't think they'd be very likely to frequent the art theaters where Rampart is likely to be found), though there's not much artistic honor in stockpiling reasons why a character is an ass in lieu of giving him proper character development.

There's not much depth to all of this: Moverman's aesthetic is pointedly restrained, except for an overreliance on camera movement (one simple three-way conversation between Harrelson, Weaver, and Steve Buscemi is shot with so many mismatched tracking shots that it could give a person motion sickness), and a wildly over-stylised nightclub sequence with as aggressive a use of sound and music as anything I've seen in a movie in 2011. And despite a very well-stocked cast - beyond the names I've named, Ned Beatty, Ben Forster, Robin Wright, and Ice Cube all show up - none of the characters exist as anything other than objects for Brown to respond to, and not even at their best can Weaver and Buscemi scrape anything worthwhile out of the old "grumpy cop boss" role.

No, whatever part of Rampart isn't a social studies document of recent Los Angeles history is first, foremost, and only a chance for Woody Harrelson to show off with a splashy villain role that lets him open up with the deep dark like nothing else he's ever done. What it does not do is give Harrelson very much to work with, although it would be foolish to deny that he's absolutely, impeccably convincing in the angry white savage mode that the screenplay asks him to adopt. There is real menace in the performance, and when the pegs are knocked out from under him in the second half, there is embarrassment and sorrow as well. The one truly great thing about his performance, and even about the film, is that he's willing to play Brown as he would be in life: a man who thinks that every awful thing he does and says is completely justified and even necessary for the smooth functioning of society around him.

Now, all this being said... Rampart is effective, in the most literal sense. It is difficult to watch it and not be profoundly worked up, and it is far better for a movie to have emotional impact and wobbly dramatic integrity than to be flawlessly constructed and chilly. So even though I've said hardly one nice thing about the film, in the end it's not really "bad". What it is, is dark and agonisingly nasty, and to no real purpose. "Bad cops are bad" is a tautology, and the only thing Rampart has to offer as theme, and what could, in surer hands, come across as uncompromising brutal brilliance just feels like particularly aggressive button-pushing.


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