NOTE: This review was originally published on September 11, 2011 after I saw it at the Toronto International Film Festival. I am reprinting it here as it hits limited theaters this week.
With Rampart, director Oren Moverman has created what is essentially an art house version of Training Day as he explores one man’s descent into Hell. With famed crime novelist James Ellroy, Moverman co-wrote the script and has re-teamed with Woody Harrelson, the Oscar-nominated star of his last film The Messenger, who plays Dave Brown, a chain-smoking renegade cop and member of the Los Angeles Police Department circa 1999. Despite my anticipation, the film was in no way what I expected as Moverman follows Brown’s path from on the edge police officer to an unrecognizable street demon to the point he leaves him to wander the streets of L.A. alone.
A Vietnam veteran and a lifelong dirty cop, Dave is referred to as “Date Rape” Dave, a moniker he earned several years ago after killing a serial date rapist without cause. Now, amidst the late-1990s Rampart scandal, Dave represents the last of a dying breed. He considers himself a “soldier” following in the footsteps of his father in an attempt to uphold what he refers to as the “extraordinary vicissitudes of justice.” He’s a man with a golden tongue, a precedent for everything and a vocabulary to back it up, but when an incident of extreme police brutality is caught on tape, Brown finds himself in a downward spiral, both personally and professionally.
The word “visceral” can be tossed around too much when referring to films and you only realize it once you see a film that truly has that kind of an impact. Rampart is that kind of film, much like Lynne Ramsay’s latest effort We Need to Talk about Kevin. This film affects you not only for its content, but there is a visual and aural gut punch that’s achieved with the way Moverman has chosen to shoot the film and present several of its scenes.
Whether it’s the increasingly consistent red glow as we follow Brown on his downward trajectory, techno riffs assaulting us in the darkness or faceless beings making dirty deals, Moverman has found a way to tell a story we’ve seen before in a way unlike I’ve ever seen and he’s brought together an unlikely, yet effective, cast which he uses sparingly but efficiently.
Woody Harrelson occupies most every scene, and as he moves through Los Angeles he comes up against a host of names beginning with his life at home. Brown has two daughters from two different women (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) who happen to be sisters. He appears to be a decent father, at first, but the nature of the relationship his daughters have with each other is revealed when his youngest asks if they’re inbred, a shocking question for a young girl to ask and even more so once we hear the answer. This marks one of the first signs things may not be all right.
Around the rest of the city, Steve Buscemi gets a few brief scenes as the town’s mayor; Ice Cube plays an internal affairs detective watching Brown’s every move and Sigourney Weaver gives a great supporting performance as a department lawyer. Robin Wright plays a curious mystery woman we never learn too much about, Ben Foster plays a homeless man that may have seen too much and Ned Beatty plays a sleazy retired cop whose motivations aren’t entirely clear.
Brown bounces in and out of the lives of these people, most of the time in an attempt to cover his own ass or in a hope to regain a family connection we are led to believe he may have once had. What struck me most, beyond the film’s climactic rave scene, was the way Moverman allows us to connect with Dave despite all that we’ve seen and Harrelson’s Oscar-level performance is one of the main reasons.
Rampart is efficient in its approach to the character. Early on we’re introduced to Dave as he’s training a rookie cop. He’s imparting his years of experience on her, suggesting she forget everything she’s learned at the Academy. He seems like a tough cop, but not the cop we soon get to know. Gradually there is a shift in the character and situations, and stress soon begins to dictate his next move until he seems to have run out of options.
Most films involve a journey of some sort, Rampart is no different, however I don’t believe any of us would ever want to follow Dave down this path and that uneasiness is what helps make the film so effective. This is a film that’s dark and seedy and not likely one I’ll return to often if ever again, but it’s effectiveness is hard to ignore.