Director : Oren Moverman
Screenplay : James Ellroy and Oren Moverman
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Woody Harrelson (Dave Brown), Robin Wright (Linda Fentress), Sigourney Weaver (Joan Confrey), Ice Cube (Kyle Timkins), Ned Beatty (Hartshorn), Steve Buscemi (Bill Blago), Cynthia Nixon (Barbara), Anne Heche (Catherine), Brie Larson (Helen), Sammy Boyarsky (Margaret), Ben Foster (General Terry)
It wouldn’t be hard to view Oren Moverman’s Rampart and Steve McQueen’s Shame as companion pieces about moral depravity taking place on opposing coasts. While Rampart is set in the stifling heat of Los Angeles and Shame takes place during a chilly New York winter, both films center around enigmatic central characters about whom we know very little, especially what fuels their destructive behaviors. If Rampart works better than Shame, it is because it does a more compelling job of drawing us into the world of Woody Harrelson’s corrupt LAPD cop, whereas Michael Fassbender’s sex addict in Shame is constantly kept at arm’s length.
Moverman introduces us to the main character, Dave Brown, in unsettling close-ups inside his squad car as he drives through the mean streets of Los Angeles; even though his eyes, the supposed window to the soul (or lack thereof), are hidden behind a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, everything else about Dave’s body language and facial features suggest a man who is up to no good. Harrelson feels tight, wound up, full of some kind of rage or menace or just plain meanness, and when he eventually acts out, the lack of background explanation doesn’t register because his actions seem to justify themselves. Dave is, simply put, a bad man, and part of the brilliance of Harrelson’s performance is that he makes us feel for him anyway. We don’t like Dave—in fact, I spent most of the movie absolutely disgusted by him—but there is something inherently gripping about his interplay of sadism and masochism. As much as he damages those around him, his violence always feels as much inwardly directed as it is directed against others, and when he does try to reach out in some way (as he does with his two daughters), it simply feels pathetic.
The wheels start to come off Dave’s sordid life when he is videorecorded beating a man who crashed into the side of his squad car and then tried to run. The story is set in 1999 against the backdrop of the Rampart scandal, in which more than 70 officers in the anti-gang unit of the LAPD’s Rampart Division were implicated in some form of misconduct. Dave’s videorecorded beating, which immediately brings to mind the Rodney King case from seven year earlier, puts him in the crosshairs of an assistant district attorney (Sigourney Weaver) who wants to force him into retirement. Dave refuses, partially out of sheer stubbornness, but also because he is all too aware that he has nowhere to go. His life as a cop is his identity, the one place where he has found success and can maintain authority, however morally debased it may be. He is clearly intelligent (he often speaks—and shows off—with hyperarticulate accuracy), but that intelligence is dangerous because it lacks a moral dimension and regard for others. We see this in his personal life, which is a particularly unique disaster: He has been married and divorced twice to sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), each of whom gave birth to a daughter. They live next door to each other and Dave tries to live among them, holding together some perverse sense of family that is really just a sop to his own egotism and need for sexual gratification. When his family won’t gratify him, he prowls a local bar where he picks up women, including a defense attorney (Robin Wright) who may or may not have been seeking him out, as well.
The screenplay by Moverman (The Messenger) and heralded crime novelist James Ellroy places Dave within a legacy of corruption personified by Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), a retired police officer and friend of Dave’s deceased father (the idea of moral sickness is literalized in Bobby Bukowski’s cinematography, which presents much of the action in dark interior spaces that feel like they are inside a diseased human body). Hartshorn was even more corrupt than Dave, perhaps because he lived and worked in an era prior to videocameras when average citizens were more prone to see police officers as protectors, rather than aggressors. Whenever Dave is in trouble he turns to Hartshorn, who acts like a surrogate father figure in reassuring Dave while also slipping him information he can exploit to his own advantage. It is in acting on one of Hartshorn’s tips that Dave puts himself in another set of crosshairs, these wielded by Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), a determined internal affairs investigator.
As both a racist and a misogynist, Dave must feel doubly incensed that he is being simultaneously pursued by a female DA and a black internal affairs investigator, but such is the nature of comeuppance in Rampart. Like Shame, the film essentially sends its amoral, misanthropic protagonist on a spiral of self-destruction, his crooked behaviors finally spinning out of his control (both films epitomize their characters’ demise in a grotesque, hellishly lit bathhouse that plays like some kind of Dante’s Inferno-esque descent into their own hearts of darkness). As Dave grasps for control, we can sense it slipping further and further away from him, which tears us in multiple directions, drawing out of us simultaneous desires for his ultimate punishment and a sense of sadness that any human being could become so soulless. References to combat in Vietnam, failed education as a lawyer, and the premeditated murder of a serial rapist are never proffered as explanation, but rather as more pieces of a puzzle that can never be fully put together.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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