Rampart: Oren Moverman’s Crime Policier, Starring Woody Harrelson

Fluidly directed by Oren Moverman, “Rampart” adds an honorable panel to subgenre of crime-policiers that could be called “Dirty Cops.”

Thematically, but not stylistically, “Rampart” is located on a continuum somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s 1971 iconic “Dirty Harry” and Abel Ferrara’s 1992 excessive and sensationalist “Bad Lieutenant.”

When a director makes a striking debut—such as  Moverman with “The Messenger” in 2009—you hope that his second feature will fulfill expectations.  “Rampart” certainly reaffirms Moverman as a gifted filmmaker to watch, even if overall it’s not as strong or as rich a picture as “The Messenger”; the tale is  familiar and drags in the last reel.

This is the second, successful teaming of Moverman and Woody Harrelson, a talented actor who has not had such challenging roles in a decade.  In “Rampart,” Harrelson’s presence—and acting—is even more crucial to the film’s overall impact than it was in “The Messenger,” for a number of reasons.  First, as the lead character, Harrelson is in almost every scene (“The Messenger” was more of a two-handler, with Harrelson co-starring with Ben Foster, who plays a small part in the new picture).

Second, Harrelson is constantly on the move, literally and figuratively—a strategy that’s particularly conducive to the medium of film.  In the course of the tale, he interacts in brief but meaningful scenes with at least a dozen characters, in which he reveals another facet of his psyche, as a damaged Vietnam vet, an officer who’s both a product and victim of the above malaise as well as of his own personality.

Holding the entire picture on his robust shoulders, Harrelson deserves a serious consideration for Best Actor Oscar nomination. Harrelson received an Oscar nod in 1996, for Milos Forman’s controversial biopic, “The People Vs. Larry Flynt,” and a well-deserved Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for “The Messenger.”  Hopefully, the fact that “Rampart is released by a small if entrepreneurial distributor (Millennium) for only one week in N.Y. and L.A., would not hamper his prospects with Academy voters.  Right now, “Rampart” is scheduled for a late January theatrical opening.

While Harrelson’s is definitely the protagonist–the narrative center–I am hesitant to label him as the work’s “hero” or “anti-hero,” for reasons that should become clearer at the end of this essay. Moverman tries to present a non-judgmental portrait of a troubled cop, though my impression is that the figure is sort of a “sympathetic monster” (in large part due to Harrelson’s emotionally touching rendition).

The text, co-written by the gifted crime-fiction author James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential,” made into a superlative film by Curtis Hanson in 1997) and Moverman, is set in Los Angeles in 1999.  We are first introduced to Harrelson’s Officer Dave Brown, a Rampart Precinct cop, as he is driving in his car, wearing dark glasses and smoking.  He projects the image of a cool, confident pro, sort of a contempo Steve McQueen (without the glamour of McQueen).

Brown might easily have been labeled “Dirty Dave” (a la “Dirty Harry”), as he himself is aware of his “strange” code of ethics.  At this point of his 22 year-old career, he has accepted as a sacred calling his job of doing “the people’s dirty work.”

For Dave, there is no clear line of demarcation between “right” and “wrong.” He is his own man, defined by his own (both eccentric and peculiar) code of ethics and actual behavior.  An inner-directed man (to borrow the sociological distinction of David Riseman between inner-directed and other-directed individuals), Dave is action-oriented and a man of few words.  Language has almost no significance in his world, because he is unable to articulate and express his feeling even for people he likes and cares for.

All “goes well” so long as there is no evidence or witnesses to Dave’s nasty brutality and ruthless conduct (when in doubt, he shoots first, then asks questions).  However, when Dave gets caught on tape beating a suspect, a thorough investigation begins, which later escalates in different directions and unpredictable ways.

From this point on, the fluid, well-constructed narrative takes the shape of a chronicle of a man in deep crisis, a macho who begins a long, painful downward spiral, personally, professionally, and emotionally.

It doesn’t help that elements of Dave’s past sins, such as grounded accusations of his killing a serial rapist, are brought to the surface–again.  The broader context—a department-wide corruption scandal– makes his case even more sensitive, complicated, and in the public eye.

Set on his own ways, while both refusing and unable to change his modus operandi, Dave internalizes his phobias and anxieties to the point of unbearable anguish and relentless paranoia.

Ellroy and Moverman are successful in integrating Dave’s messy personal and family life with his equally messy professional work.  In quick brushes, we meet his two ex-wives, who “happen” to be sisters, and two daughters, one of whom is particularly vulnerable.

In a key emotional scene, she accuses her father of being a “macho, sexist, racist, bigot, and homophobic,” hard charges that have foundations in reality and leave Dave speechless and defenseless, when his kids desert him.

Also adding to the complex and complicated portraiture is an aging mentor, who “happens” to dispense unhelpful, and occasionally downright bad advice.

As a result, Dave’s various crises begin to escalate, dragging him down to a point of no return.  Problem is—and these is the main weakness of the film, dramatically—is that Dave does not change much (he just continues to escalate and go down), More importantly, the filmmakers could not figure out (or did not want to provide) a more satisfying way to end Dave’s misery—and their saga.

On the one hand, Ellory and Moverman should be commended for not choosing easier thematic solutions, such as the one taken by Eastwood’s right-winger cop “Dirty Harry,” who quits the police force and then goes on a vengeance spree by taking the law into his own hand.

On the other, “Rampart” doesn’t have the effective and logical closure that Ferrara chose for “Bad Lieutenant,” in which the immoral and amoral Harvey Keitel is senselessly shot in his car, while parking in front of a Times Square movie-theater.

Spoiler Alert

The closing scene—and last image—shows up Dave in close up. Is he in a state of moral limbo, completely gone?  A broken man who has lost everything, a misanthrope stripped of his arrogant machismo and chauvinism. There’s no moral redemption for Dave or emotional catharsis for us viewers.  This kind of ambiguity may have been intended in earnest by Ellroy and Moverman, but it left me frustrated.

A longer review, discussing the film’s dynamic visual style and superlative acting by the entire ensemble, which includes terrific turns by Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Ben Foster, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, will be published later.

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