Rampart features a powerhouse central performance from Woody Harrelson as corrupt Los Angeles Police Officer Dave Brown. Harrelson manages to take a character who should be (and is) reprehensible, and yet manages to imbue him with the faintest sense of tragedy. However, the problem is the movie that takes place around Brown. Brown’s story is an inherently tragic one, a relic of a by-gone era trapped in his own self-destructive pattern. He’s not dynamic or proactive, and so reacts to the world around him. While director Oren Moverman populates the film with any number of iconic and recognisable character actors, the film can’t help but feel a lot too sterile, a little too inert. We’ve seen this story before, and while Harrelson’s performance is compelling, the film around him is not.
To be fair, part of this could be cultural. I had to do a bit of research afterwards to discover what exactly “Rampart” was. I’m sure the investigation into corruption in the Los Angeles anti-gang task force is an important part of Californian social policy, and the movie makes the general context clear enough, but it never feels especially clear why Brown’s story is tied to Rampart, except that it’s an investigation into police corruption. Obviously, he becomes a pawn in a grander scheme, an attempt to deflect attention away from the investigation, but the movie never quite anchors the concept, outside of the most general terms.
Harrelson is great as Brown. Brown is very much a man out of time. He’s not just a relic left over from the early nineties when Los Angeles police officers operated with impunity. There’s something far more primative about him. His first scene features Harrelson advising a female officer not waste food, to finish her french fries – it implies the mentality of a very base hunter-gatherer. He has assembled his family – included two ex-wives – around him into something resembling a commune. The law has acknowledged that they aren’t a family, but Brown won’t concede that – he still acts as if he is the patriarch of the family unit, responsible for tying it all together.
He’s crass, violent and temperamental. While he tries to be a loving and considerate father, he seems to have little idea of how to relate to his daughters. His badge is an entitlement to him, something that gives him the freedom to do whatever he pleases. He can recite countless legal precedents with practised ease, but there’s very little to suggest he truly understands them, let alone respects them. Women are just objects to him – to be pursued, and then discarded. Unless, of course, they catch his eye, in which case he becomes extremely possessive and completely blind to any possible boundary issues.
And yet, despite these sizeable flaws, Harrelson almost makes us pity this walking cave man. There’s a sense that he’s completely blind to everything around him except his most basic needs. When he needs cash, he doesn’t stop to think about the mechanics involved in his fundraising, let alone that somebody he trusts might have an agenda beyond his own. As a result, he’s blind of the potential danger around him until it’s too late. As Brown is inevitably directed into a trap of his own making, Harrelson’s tired and worn out portrayal actually makes us feel a bit sorry for the man between his acts of brutality.
While Brown is a compelling character and Harrelson is a superb leading actor, the film itself doesn’t seem to have too much else going on. There’s no sense that the movie has a life outside of Brown, which makes it hard for us to buy him as a reactive protagonist. Director Oren Moverman can’t seem to resist the urge to keep the camera moving, which only creates a bigger problem connecting with the film around Brown.
At one point, there’s a three-way conversation between Brown and two vying authority figures played by Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver. Putting those three actors in a room together, especially for a heated conversation, should be gripping stuff. Instead, Moverman doesn’t focus on the actors. He instead keeps the camera spinning around, chopping back and forth. I understand he was trying to create a sense of uncertainty, but it seems like he’s almost afraid to let the actors speak for themselves.
Moverman has this phenomenal ensemble cast he’s pulled together. Harrelson is great in the lead, but there’s Weaver and Buscemi in support. There’s also Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty and Robin Wright. However, the other stand-out of the ensemble is Ben Foster, who worked with Harrelson and Moverman on The Messenger. Foster plays a homeless alcoholic who feels like the only character to have a life of his own outside of Brown. The rest of the characters seem fairly generic archetypes that could have been pulled from any other film like this.
I understand that part of the tragedy of Rampart is that the ending is preordained from the moment Brown first appears. We only have to spend a few minutes with Brown before ascertaining that the film is unlikely to end well for him. However, Moverman never quite generates enough sense of a compelling and overwhelming force pushing down on his lead. Instead, it feels like a very slowly tightening squeeze. That might work as a way of generating tension, by Moverman doesn’t seem content to let it simmer – his direction feels quite invasive and intrusive.
It’s a shame, because Harrelson really is quite impressive in the title role. The past few years have seen Harrelson prove, once again, that he’s quite a capable actor, and Rampart is just the latest example. It’s just a shame that the rest of the movie never quite matches that.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Brown, California, Counties, film, Harrelson, los angeles, Los Angeles Police Department, Movie, non-review review, Oren Moverman, Rampart, review, sigourney weaver, steve buscemi, United States, woody harrelson