Rampart (2011, Oren Moverman)
Crooked cop dramas always have a place in the movie landscape, and it has been the case for decades already. The police are, after all, the recipients of both public outrage and praise. They live to serve and protect, yet occasionally exhibit behaviour so far below the standards which must be adhered to that it becomes small wonder many frown upon them. There is a fascination in seeing this duality develop on screen. Whether said interest rests in the satisfaction derived by some in seeing the reasons for their hatred of cops explored on film or merely out of some perverse pleasure in seeing good people become bad (or bad people pretending to be good under the guise of a badge and a gun). After working together on 2009's The Messenger, actor Woody Harrelson and director Oren Moverman join forces yet again for Rampart, which premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival and has been rolling out since across the North American market.
The film is set in 1999, some time after the infamous Rampart scandal which plagued the Los Angeles police force, Rampart being one of the district stations around the city. Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a down and dirty cop in more ways than one. His methods of extracting information from accused suspects as well as petty criminals on the run do not respect official protocol. They fly in the face of it. Physical and mental abuse are his preferred weapons of choice, with his trusty baton swinging around a bit too often for his own good and his pistol firing a little more frequently than it should. The police captain (Robert Wisdom) and one of its chief directors, Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) are fed up with Dave's inhibitions while patrolling city streets. Following Dave's fatal beating of an individual who performed strangely perfectly timed hit and run on his vehicle, the law enforcer must now face the law itself. Further complicating Dave's life is that the mounting pressure is threefold: the investigation into his police methods, his tumultuous relationship with a criminal lawyer (Robin Wright), and the tension with pervades at the family home, where he lives with his two daughters and his two formers wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon).
Seeing how movie review and analysis frequently involves comparative analysis, it can be argued that the picture Rampart may be likened with the most is Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant from 1992, starring Harvey Keitel. Both provide their star actors with astonishingly vulgar and violent roles as policeman failing to perform their duties adequately, giving in to vice, both while on and off duty. The comparison can be extended to the degree that both wicked figures experience increasing degrees of pressure as they sway further and further away from the sensible spot of the moral compass. Where Rampart begins to differ from Lieutenant is in the atmosphere director Oren Moverman establishes to explore Dave's troubled behaviour. Lieutenant ostensibly embellished the ridiculousness of the protagonists behaviour. Moverman is more interested in keeping the story grounded in a sense of gritty realism, where Dave's actions have genuine consequences other having criminals perish at his mercy. The police force looks bad, public relations people have to work in overdrive and his family is royally fed up. There is also an effort to develop Dave's psychology to the extent that the viewer will not leave the film feeling particularly sympathetic towards the character. As such, the reasoning behind the officer's erratic behaviour in the face of protocol is somewhat opaque. Is he racist? Probably, although the viewer does not know that for sure (yet he sleeps with a black woman) Is he sexist? Probably, but again, the film refrains from having Dave ever explicitly utter any hatred towards females. Various scenes argue otherwise in fact, in which he genuinely wants to reconcile with members of his family, especially his eldest daughter (Brie Larson) who has opted to steadfastly shun her father in the face of his despicable public acts...and other more family-related memories she would just as well forget. The nuance in Dave is that while he eschews decency in many instances, he is not a stupid person either, quite capable of holding his own in a conversation in which he must defend his actions, even making his naysayers appear more foolish than himself when the words come out right.
Moverman's camera control is wonderfully fluid at times while at other moments very carefully guided by his hand. The majority of Rampart is visualized via the popular cinema vérité style, which is all the more interesting when considering that the film is, in truth, inspired by real embarrassing occurrences within the ranks of the LAPD during the 1990s, events that haunt the institution's image till this very day. The frame rarely shakes so much as to confuse the viewer, a welcomed decision given that the picture does not involve any significant action pieces, preferring to spend time on the human drama. There are instances however in which the director will shoot a scene in a very artistically driven fashion so as to hit home some critical ideas about the characters. The most memorable instance is when Dave, Joan Confrey and the district attorney (Steve Buscemi, in a small but effective role) are arguing about the way to proceed with the investigation. The emotionally charged discussion leads virtually nowhere, with the two men merely blowing off steam, with Sigourney Weaver's character caught in the middle of the shouting, all the while the camera, set at the centre point amongst the trio, spins around slowly. As the tone between the speakers heats up, the camera continues to twirl, emphasizing the point that their very conversation is but spinning in circles. For some, this is an eye rolling technique for its overtness, an example of a director falling prey to heavy-handedness. Sure enough, the visual style feels organic to the situation at hand.
Director Oren Moverman certainly plays his part in creating a smarter and deeper than expected film in Rampart, but the anchor which holds everything together is actor Woody Harrelson, unequivocally. Seeing him portray crooked cop Dave Brown is a reminder of just how good an actor Harrelson can be. It feels as if once the 1990s faded so did Harrelson's stardom. The last decade or so has seen him either take on roles in very small pictures (Transsiberian) or small roles in very big yet poor films (2012 being a perfect example). In essence, he is not a name mentioned very often when the topic of great actors comes up. Rampart is an opportunity to take the spotlight yet again as he did so many year ago. It unfortunately is not a movie that received much of a release. In fact, much of the buzz has emanated from the festival circuit, but one can hope that Harrelson is hired for more noticeable films in the foreseeable future. Writing and direction can only do so much for a character in the case of most films. Bringing to fruition as complex a character as Dave requires an actor of high calibre. He can bring the menace, he can bring the intelligence, and he can bring the ambiguity that lies at the heart of the role.
Those hoping for a psychotic decent into hell as in Bad Lieutenant might want to leave their expectations at the door. Moverman and Harrelson play around in far murkier territory, creating a movie which will makes no apologies for hits protagonist, but never goes so far as to dehumanize him either. In the end, when the villain appears as human as possible, that can be the most frightened thing of all.