Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: James Ellroy and Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Robin Wright (formerly Penn), Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Brie Larson, Ned Beatty and Sigourney Weaver
Set in 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), the last of a dying breed of vietnam-vet, ‘cowboy’ cops, struggles to survive in the midst of accusations of police brutality, and an investigation into a shooting in the line of duty.
James Ellroy, the man responsible for writing L.A Confidential, Street Kings and The Black Dahlia brings his detailed knowledge of the L.A.P.D and the landscape of the City of Angels to Rampart. He contextualizes the political tension of the late 90s L.A as the tension of racial prejudice embroils the ‘RAMPART’ division and particularly Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson). Brown is department dinosaur, too hard headed and controversial to progress through the ranks. He’s stuck to his patrol car, overtly disrupting criminal operations on the street. His family life is complex, living in granny flat at the junction of two houses shared by two sisters [Nixon & Heche] (and consecutive ex wives) and their two children (both fathered by Brown). He floats into the family home anchoring a group of woman together that resent him. And finally the elephant in the room is a past controversy where an alleged date-rapist was ‘allegedly’ (certainly) murdered by Brown and the lack of evidence allowed him to be cleared on any wrong doing.
There’s a great economy in the script that tells you everything you need to know about Brown’s world, without feeling bombarded by over explanation. The settings and encounters are designed to have Brown show is who he is in differing situations.
Co-Writer/Director Oren Moverman does a phenomenal job putting the audience right in the face of Brown. The point of view throughout constantly looks upon Brown, looking upon the world. We’re in Brown’s face so much that you almost feel enveloped in the second hand smoke pouring liberally from his mouth. The lighting, and colour palette of Rampart makes the sunbathed streets of L.A feel like the desert storm locals in current war films. As Brown’s descent into chaos progresses the colourful lights clash and mesh and it feels like you’re in his hazy, drunken, drug addled existence. And because so much of Rampart is Dave being interrogated, Moverman does a great job of capturing conversations without adhering to the static ‘shot-reverse shot’ tactic for the duration. In only his second effort as director – he’s certainly another one I’ll be adding to my watch-list.
The supporting cast are integral and powerful; providing rich character portraits in whatever time they’re allowed. Anne Heche’s Catherine and Cynthia Nixon’s Barbara are the sisters/ex’s attempting to remain cordial to keep Brown’s ‘perfect world’ together. They’re both repressed by the presence of Brown, it’s certainly inferred that he’s had violent outbursts to keep them in line. It’s only when he’s drowning in the depths of two controversies that they begin to get the ammunition to break down this awkward situation. Heche is more dynamic as Catherine because she wants to hurt Brown, and Nixon’s Barbara is trying to keep the peace.
Robin Wright’s Linda becomes slightly infatuated with Brown in the wake of the first round of controversy in the film and she becomes the source of escape and as their relationship changes, you see that she’s the outlet for his losses in composure. I’m loving seeing more of Wright (she also stars in Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) – not only is she incredibly beautiful, she’s effortlessly complex and mysterious. After seeing Sigourney Weaver’s Police Joan Confrey has some of the more powerful spoken confrontations with Brown, getting to his motivations to remain a police officer in the midst of the controversy. Ice Cube’s performance as the idealistic and moral Officer Timkins is as good as his earlier breakouts in Boyz in Da Hood and better than really anything that I’ve seen since. Ned Beatty plays his last remaining confidant in Hartshorn, a retired cop from the ‘glory days’ who keeps him afloat until a helping hand becomes a potential betrayal in Brown’s decent to paranoia. Beatty embodies the bulldog cop breed and is not-so-subtlely manipulative and conniving if it’s in the interest of self-preservation.
Finally, Woody Harrelson is stretched to perform one of the fullest and instantly classic ‘crooked-cops’ that I’ve ever seen delivered within the constraints of a cinematic running time. Michael Chiklis had seven seasons of The Shield to get us to the depths of Vic Mackey – and I would argue that Harrelson’s Brown is that good. He’s an utter renegade; seemingly perceiving himself as a old-west sheriff of what he calls “occupied territory.” And to compare; Mackey had his crew and a series of contacts to protect his activities, while someone like Nicholas Cage’s McDonagh in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans operates in a psychadelic dream world version of policing thanks to Herzog’s weirdness. Ellroy and Overman give a real world context for Brown and therefore a more hostile and authentic landscape to navigate through with his brand of behaviour. However, it’s his intelligence that makes him so unique. He’s dynamic to watch playing politics with his superiors and the Mayor Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi) versed in every single legal president to protect him. And although he admits to failing the ‘bar exam’ to become a lawyer, he uses the knowledge to galvanize him from scrutiny and to make his employers painfully aware of the amount of trouble that they’d get themselves into by getting rid of him without the ‘right’ ammunition. Harrelson compounds minor quirks, fierce intelligence, flaws, charm, humour and pairs it with racism, self-riteousness, substance abuse, collusion, rage, and desperation and the resulting character of Brown is utterly mesmerizing.
Rampart is a hypnotic, subjective, immersive experience into the deepest depths of a character that you love to hate. Ellroy, Moverman and Harrelson make the eloquent and deeply corrupt Brown the most charismatic, charming sociopath riding a gyre to rock bottom. It’s powerfully ambiguous filmmaking; and you need to see it.