Dir. Oren Moverman, USA, 2011, 108mins
Review by Mark Byrnes
If ever an urban metropolis could be identified as being synonymous with cinematic tales of police corruption then Los Angeles is surely guilty as charged. Collaborating with crime novelist and long-time LA resident James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), writer-director Oren Moverman offers an uncomfortable character study of a veteran police officer, who orchestrates his own unwitting downfall in Rampart.
Mirroring the real life investigation into police misconduct and corruption within the LAPD during the late 1990s, the film follows Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) as his world starts to crumble, when he is captured on video severely beating a suspect in broad daylight. Under pressure from the assistant District Attorney (Sigourney Weaver) to atone for his misconduct and with his past actions under increasing scrutiny, Brown refuses the offer to exit the department quietly. With an unconventional domestic set-up of two ex-wives who are also sisters, (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), and two daughters, Brown finds little support from his own family, who have grown tired of his selfish ways. Seeking solace with random women and the bad company of an aging mentor (Ned Beatty), Brown’s paranoia begins to increase, abetted by a D.A Investigator (Ice Cube) determined to bring an end to Brown’s notorious career.
Having garnered an Oscar nomination for Woody Harrelson in his debut feature, The Messenger, writer-director Oren Moverman harnesses another excellent performance from this actor. Moverman states that he sought to deliver a more pared down, humanist take on Ellroy’s original script, deviating from some of its more authoritarian leanings. In that regard Rampart is very much a singular crime movie, offering an objective portrayal of a complex individual, who by turns repels and fascinates with his selfish and deluded behaviour (“You can’t cheat on something you’re not committed to”, Brown tells his family). While Brown’s past is mostly alluded to (the nickname ‘Date Rape Dave’ refers to his alleged murder of a suspected rapist), his behaviour in the present is offered up for scrutiny in uncomfortably intimate fashion.
Albeit not an obvious choice for this role, given his social campaigning and anti-authoritarian persona off-screen, Harrelson renders Brown as an emaciated, paradoxical figure, one who seems to survive merely on nicotine, hard liquor and bad choices. A stellar supporting cast, aided by a strong, character driven script and Moverman’s evenly pitched direction, delivers a clutch of solid performances. Robin Wright as a disillusioned and lonely lawyer and Ned Beatty as the wily Hartshorn, dispensing bad advice to his younger protégé, stand out in particular.
Many will no doubt feel uncomfortable with the dispassionate approach that Moverman has taken in Rampart. Avoiding easy judgements of the film’s anti-hero and without a redemptive resolution, one is left to reflect on a searing portrait of a man, who no longer basks in the sunshine of the City of Angels.