Woody Harrelson is “Date Rape” Dave Brown, a police officer at the core of a scandal-embroiled police station in director Oren Moverman’s Rampart. Penned by James Ellroy, the most prolific author in American crime fiction (LA Confidential, The Black Dahlia), the film tells the tale of a dirty cop in the eye of a public and political firestorm that threatens to ensure his downfall. As a semi art-house take on the corrupt cop genre, Rampart is a haunting personal view into a rogue’s crumbling life.
As is Ellroy’s trademark, Rampart places a fictional story in the midst of true events; in this case the Rampart scandal that consumed the LAPD’s anti-gang division of the same name. In Ellroy’s world, Brown, a Vietnam vet, is a key figure who has repeatedly withstood the charges with his career miraculously intact. However, the impact on his personal life has been far greater. The bizarre family dynamic between his two daughters, ex-wife and current girlfriend is a powder keg waiting to blow. His eldest daughter, Helen (Brie Larson) is the only one to have her father sussed for the womanising, racist, bigot he is. As the noose tightens around Brown’s neck professionally, his desperation expands: blackmail, murder, robbery; Rampart is akin to watching a man drown. There is little presented here to like about Brown. His tactics are never glamourised and there is no real sense of heroism to him as it becomes increasingly clear that he’s in well over his head and not clever enough to evade comeuppance.
Harrelson carries Rampart well. He is truly unlikable, even detestable and though that risks creating a distance between the film and its viewers, it is imperative in order to present a more realistic take on police corruption. His eyes are cold-throughout, even as he addresses his daughters and it is easy to question Brown’s stability. He physically begins to look worse for wear as he plummets further down his spiral. The narrative focus is primarily on Brown’s personal relationships and the deterioration of them. Little time is spent in the actual Rampart police station, as Brown is frequently seen, in profile view, cruising the streets in his patrol car. The cinematography is such an important element to the success of Rampart that director of photography Bobby Bukowski deserves second billing on the film’s poster. With much of the personal interactions shot with a slightly shaky hand-held camera, the film at times feels like the gritty television police drama The Shield (appearing to be influential to the film on several levels). It’s the more private moments where the framing really excels as constant tight shots of Brown increases the discomfort and there s no mistaking his intentions. Scenes of special significance are uniquely and beautifully shot, with a late hotel scene making wonderful use of light and positioning.
The supporting cast is exceptionally stacked with talent. Sigourney Weaver is the assistant District Attorney looking to bring Brown down with Steve Buscemi getting nowhere near enough screen time as her boss. Ned Beatty is the ex-cop Brown trusts. Also getting a good look in are Robin Wright as a rather crazed defence lawyer and Ice Cube as the Internal Affairs agent who has Brown in his cross-hairs. There isn’t a bad performance to be found in Rampart. The main drawback from the film, though, is just how difficult it is to feel anything but disgust towards Brown. That may be the point, but it reduces the emotional involvement in the outcome, which itself may prove unsatisfying to some. It is unfair to make comparisons to characters established over a long-running television drama, but The Shield is a prime example of establishing the humanity of a dirty cop without glorifying his actions. Rampart would have benefited from some of that balance in order to create more engagement with its audience.
If only for Harrelson’s performance and the superb photography, Rampart should be seen. It’s definitely not the standard police corruption/anti-hero fare so anyone looking for big shoot-outs and car chases should look elsewhere. Rampart is an intelligent, unsettling look into the world of an immoral man with power to abuse. The consequences aren’t pretty and while it gets pretty grim, it is also a refreshingly honest approach. 8/10