The new film Rampart once again teams director Oren Moverman with actor Woody Harrelson. They also collaborated on Moverman’s directorial debut, the terse and powerful The Messenger. As with Tommy Lee Jones in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley of Elah, The Messenger deftly explicated the fallout of the Iraq War by placing the weight of it on one man’s tense shoulders: Woody Harrelson’s Captain Tony Stone (both roles earned the actors Oscar nominations). Moverman encourages comparison by reprising several aspects of his first film in Rampart. He builds a strong cast around Harrelson (including a solid supporting role for Ben Foster) and employs handheld digital cinematography by Bobby Bukowski (though several significant steps up in quality). There are some thematic links as well, as Moverman again sets his sights on authority undermined and riven by corruption, but this time his target is the late 1990s-era LAPD. Harrelson plays Dave Brown, an aggressive cop whose rogue attitude pits him against Department superiors looking to reform the LAPD in the wake of scandal. Escalating stakes push Brown to the breaking point, with an inevitable downfall that is more plummet than spiral.
Rampart is co-written by James Ellroy, and bears the heavy mark of the author’s sparse, jazzy style and dark pessimism. Known for his noir-ish crime world fiction, Ellroy once again takes us spelunking in the dark caves of Los Angeles, where no amount of dry sunshine can diffuse the dank rot. Rampart’s provenance is the very real LAPD scandal of the same name: a cop ratted out the anti-gang unit in the Rampart division, uncovering in the process an epic of misconduct that comprised everything from your garden variety corruption (shootings, beatings, planting evidence) to your more exotic abuses (narcotics theft and dealing, bank robbery, and perjury). The film uses the Rampart scandal as a plot device, situating the old-school Dave Brown in the midst of a Department in chaos. In truth, I found the plot extremely hard to parse. The film drops vague hints at best, making for cracking dialogue but slim comprehension. At best, I’d say the story is a riff on the scandal, far more invested in style and Harrelson’s performance than in coherence. The resulting film looks and sounds great, and is perhaps best at showing off the colorful ugliness of Los Angeles. In addition to Harrelson’s full-blast descent, Moverman also draws sharp performances from the supporting cast (including the surprising Stella Schnabel as a rookie cop, Steve Buscemi as an exasperated District Attorney, and Ben Foster as a homeless vet and street informant to Brown). But the narrative skitters between scenes, cutting on a dime, establishing a rhythm that is tonally correct but superficial, more improvisatory flash than substance.
Brown begins the film with some sense of agency; we see him driving around the city, framed in silhouette, his set jaw and mirrored sunglasses an inscrutable mask. He’s all swagger and confidence, sure of his infallibility if not his actual power. One sphere where his badge and gun do him no good is with his family. From what I gather, he spawned a daughter each from two sisters, creating an awkward, pseudo-incestuous den of female rancor. Oblivious to their feelings, he continues to saunter through the door in search of a martini and a fuck, and gets derisive laughter, cold stares, and bitchery in return. This highly implausible scenario is perhaps the weakest part of the story; his exes (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) are cast as middle-class, Pottery Barn-chic creatives, and it’s hard to imagine a tough nut like Brown charming one liberal California woman, let alone two. Is Moverman attempting to counterbalance Brown’s otherwise loathsome actions with some sort of devotion to “family,” his daughters in particular? A late scene in an exiled Brown’s hotel room seems to suggest so, but I shared the daughters’ perplexed sense of disbelief. Brown is no more a family man or lover of women than he is a model citizen. Nonetheless, he’s adept at picking up women, circling them at his local bar like a horny predator: a few lame pickup lines and we cut to them abruptly tearing their clothes off. Harrelson apparently dropped some lbs for the role, and his wiry frame does emanate animalistic charm as he ravages his prey. Unfortunately, these trysts end badly, exposing Brown’s fatal flaw: he is incapable of intimacy or empathy.
The plot kicks in when Brown’s cruiser is hit and the driver attempts to run off. Brown chases him down and gives him a thorough beating, which is caught on video (with obvious echoes of Rodney King). An irate public and browbeaten superiors find a handy target in Brown, whose violent temper and arrogance thrust him into perpetual conflict with the world. Brown’s cop moniker is “Date Rape,” for his (unproven) murder of a serial rapist (any gallantry this detail might have conveyed is wiped away by Brown’s creepy sneer and general assholery). He has managed to evade repercussions for past “situations,” but seems outmatched this time. He calls on the aid of his late father’s crony, money exchanges hands, and Brown stays on the squad. His refusal to apologize (for anything, ever) and his increasing legal expenses push him toward further shakedowns, and when an attempted seizure of gambling loot ends with murder at Brown’s hands, his paranoia blossoms. It’s a likely set up, but Brown is so unworthy of pity that it doesn’t seem to matter.
Although Harrelson commits to Brown’s tillerless evil, the effect is oddly flat. It’s not simply surrender to evil, but the awareness of that surrender that creates the shudder of dread that makes noir potent. It takes evil beyond the individual, and circumstance, and locates it in human nature itself, and also in you. In Rampart, I found interesting echoes of Michael Fassbender’s sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame, another fallen man with a cold, hard soul (both films suggest the orgiastic sex club as the last circle of Hell). We never learn much about the inner workings of these men, and are left watching their fall from an abstract distance. Less is often more, and both Harrelson and Fassbender draw depth from their underwritten roles, but I wanted to feel something for them other than pity and disgust. In a recent Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott analyzes the emergence of the naked male penis in American movies, suggesting it symbolizes not only the existential impotence of the white, hetero male, but also of our national identity. As he puts it, “American self-confidence is undergoing its own shrinkage.” Perhaps this veil of impotence helps illuminate films like Rampart and Shame, with their embattled men who seem of another, crueler, more dominant time. Nonetheless, some of that intellectual grappling should be done by the director, not the viewer. Moverman is a talented filmmaker, and with a more precise overtone, Rampart could have been a great film, rather than the retread it is.