Why this film?: Natural Born Killers and The Edge of Seventeenwere tempting choices, but everything I’d heard about Rampart’s politically rich storyline and ambitious execution made this an easy choice right off the bat. Plus, a character actor like Woody Harrelson in a lead role feels like the kind of treat more films should offer, especially when they’re as chameleonic as him.
The Film: What’s the right way to describe the impactful but imperfectly stitched way that Rampart holds itself together? “Raggedy” seems like a good option, given how the film bounces from character to character and plot strand to plot strand with little to suggest which direction it’s going to take from one scene to the next. “Rabid” might be a better descriptor of how comes across, its risky stylization and mangy narrative informed by an odious protagonist doing his damndest to hold onto a way of life he’s taken advantage of for his entire life and keeps relentlessly sabotaging, and one it frequently seems would be happy to get rid of him. The seams always appear to be showing, and not always in productive ways, though its unpredictable trajectory, ferocious acting and direction, and fascinating decisions about its lensing, editing, and sound mixing are so bracing and frequently impressive that it’s impossible not to notice them. A-list actors orbit Woody Harrelson’s central role as a deranged cop playing the kinds of bit roles that would be just as well served by far less recognizable names, the fact of their celebrity compared to the size of their roles and their whack-a-mole reappearances in the story as disorienting as the in-monologue editing and whiplash narrative turns. Rampart’s ability to disorient its audience is nicely synchronized with the downfall of a character who refusal to accept his defeat is frequently upending, his paranoid inability to grasp the consequences of his violent and prejudiced behavior too ensconced in decades of social acceptability for him to even compute the speed at which he’s being thrown in the trash.
As much as Rampart’s experimental design and pronounced assets are on display at all times, the film is even more confrontational with its politics. In this case, those politics are the tearing open of Dave Brown’s psychology of entitlement and bigotry, and the process by which a man of an era that seemed so alive a second ago is suddenly forced to reckon with his latest crimes, which somehow aren’t the worst things he’s ever done, and must reckon even more so with how changing tides have made what was once durigur behavior now completely unacceptable. His virulent bigotry and the safety he feels wielding it as a members of the LAPD’s Rampart division – even in the middle of a scandal that implicated over seventy officers in everything from bribery to murder – is realized in his very first dialogue scene, as regales tales of former glories with another cop while menacing a female trainee into finishing all of her fries at a lunch stop, asking her invasive questions as he and writer/director Oren Moverman boldly assert that this is the man who emblematizes what the police looked like in late-90’s LA. This is only further emphasized as he joy-rides his police cruiser through a group of Mexican mechanics in the parking lot of their cop and beats a suspect through the cheap, plastic windows of a drug store office to get information out of him, not just certain that he will suffer no consequences for this but even telling this trainee so as if it was an unspoken regulation. The grounded performances, observant shaky-cam and spry editing keep these sequences from becoming cartoonishly over-the-top, depicting Brown’s violent behavior as wholly mundane and completely corrosive at the same time. His teaching that his behavior is the norm of the LAPD to this woman points to a Training Day setup but wholly avoids it by refusing the idea that Brown is in any way a “bad apple” corrupting an otherwise decent system the way that Alonzo Harris was depicted as in his film. Everyone is like this, and there’s no indication a different cop would’ve shown her the ropes any differently.
This sense of entitlement bleeds into his home life, a precarious situation where Dave seems to co-habitat with his two ex-wives – who’re sisters – and the daughter apiece he had with each of them. The women don’t live in the same house, and Dave seems to find out whether he’ll spend the night with either of them or go bar-hopping to find some woman to share a hotel room with when he asks them if they want to have sex. Again, it’s a tribute to the actors for putting over such an unconventional scenario that could’ve died on arrival, but Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche make the scenario completely credible as the make warm conversation and perry around his advances. Oldest daughter Helen, her hair messy dyed with blue streaks while wearing a 90’s art punk getup, is the only person in Dave’s life who’s openly antagonistic towards him, and the youngest is intuitive and happy to see her dad even if she’s clearly not too keyed in to the tensions around her family.
These establishing scenes of domestic and workplace tension, ones that will evolve and mutate as the story progresses, are just as impactful to watch as the moments where Brown enacts physical violence against an undeserving party or use his power as a cop to threaten some unfortunate employee into giving him a hotel room or pills. Jay Rabinowitz’s editing is so lean yet so spiky that we’re able to feel every shift of mood in Dave’s conversations or confrontations, sometimes cutting scenes as though leaving out bits of a conversation or monologue but more often than not finding unexpected angles to spy on sequences that appear to be playing out in real time. These choices dislodge a scene from any predictable beats as much as the performances do, and the vantage points that show us these sequences alternate between intimately close to the characters or at such a distance that it feeds into the overall mood of paranoia. Even if Dave’s eventual theory that he’s being used as a putz by such an unfathomable web of players from the LAPD higher-ups to family members, hookups, and ostensible allies, feels like nothing more than a right-wing conspiracy theory, the editing expertly plays into these delusions without santifying them. The plot-starting scene of him beating a Hispanic motorist to the brink of death for T-boning his police cruiser and trying to flee the scene is executed with brutal economy, by Dave and the storytellers, and it’s perfectly in tandem with their presentation of non-violent scenes and control of mood throughout the film.
From here Rampart bunny-hops between different plotlines and characters seemingly at random. It’s hard to pinpoint a coherent logic to how these scenes connect to one another – either they do or they don’t, and this disorganization might be Rampart’s most significant hurdle to overcome for viewers to get into the film. Individual plotlines are picked up in bursts and dropped for extended periods of time, creating evocative moods that leave the actors to fill in the gaps between individual characters while the plot moves ever onwards. Even as the methodology behind how these stories scrape against each other is never quite clear on a scene-by-scene level, the cumulative portrait of a man going off the deep end in order to keep his dying way of life intact still hits. The film is merciless in picking apart how Dave is propped up by the status given to him as a white male police officer, his bigotry and paranoia so acidic that the background context of the Rampart scandal almost doesn’t matter in informing who this man is. He’s an endemic source of misogyny and racism, propagating his ideologies with the assurance of systemic cooperation that calling them delusions of grandeur gives them too little credit. His biggest calling card as a police officer, the one that earned him the moniker “Date-Rape” Dave, comes from the fact that he’s all but admitted to having executed an accused serial date-rapist rather than taking the man into custody, fabricating a story that he feared for his life trying to arrest him. An older white cop suggests that Dave facing any consequences is so out of the norm that the whole thing must’ve been a set-up, from the driver he beat to the person who filmed the incident to the government officials seeking to see him punished for his actions. Feeding in to Dave’s already-existing paranoia and neuroses about women and people of color, of any non-cop in any job who disrespects his authority, this conspiracy web soon encompasses his ex-wives, his current fuck buddy, the old man himself, as Dave turns to blackmail and criminal actions to keep himself afloat. Rampart balances a tricky line between objectivity and subjectivity, many of its choices seemingly influenced by the paranoia of its protagonist even as the film is able to stand apart from his rancor and hold it up to a microscope, dissecting his bullshit for all it’s worth.
It helps tremendously that these characters are written and directed so sharply, and that their interpreters make so many specific and charismatic decisions in bringing them to life while avoiding cliche or cartooning. Woody Harrelson, sporting a skinhead-lite haircut and a wiry, muscular physicality, emanates the size and danger of his character’s bigotry while keeping him scaled to uncomfortably human size. Brie Larson’s righteously pissed-off daughter and Robin Wright’s sad, carnal, and increasingly suspect friend with benefits may very well be the most startling performances after Harrelson’s, though Nixon, Heche, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, and Audra McDonald are just as inspiring for evoking such sharp personalities with minimal screen time and unexpected entrances and exits. Everyone is able to keep a firm grip on their characters while connecting threads over gaps in appearance and in information, their relationships to Dave changing dramatically over the course of the film without ever seeming forced. Whatever can be said about Moverman and James Ellroy’s script in terms of its scene-by-scene structure, the trajectory of their story is so powerful and unpredictable that its secrets are worth keeping.
If the preceding paragraphs have repeatedly illustrated how essential Moverman’s direction is in making the script’s shifts of attention in to something potent and coherent and how commendable his negotiation of ensemble is, his dissection of Dave Brown and everything he represents is still feels like the film’s crowning glory. Rampart is not a message film that reduces its characters and scenarios to pandering stereotype or secretly condones the horrific behavior and bigoted mindset it’s supposed to be critiquing. Moverman and Harrelson make Dave Brown a fascinating and rancid character to be attached to for almost two hours, and Rampart proves itself to be a riveting character study that’s able to rip apart everything its lead man represents without dismissing him out of hand. It’s an invaluable study of white male toxicity as enabled by a police uniform, one that surely would have gotten more traction if it had a bigger distribution in 2011, but perhaps even more so if it had come out a few years later. It’s crucial to mention that the beating of the driver is not, ultimately, the crime that brings down Dave Brown, nor is the crime he confesses near the film’s climax to the FBI in the hopes of going out on his own terms what does him in. Rampart’s study of the cops who would almost kill a motorist and bully a fellow officer into eating something she didn’t want to doesn’t say that these are the actions that will cause their betters to kick them out, instead positing that these men will implode from so much internal and external pressure to keep from sinking. The actual ending plays like a leading up to a horror film, as Brown and Helen lock eyes before he slinks off into the unknown with the knowledge he could be arrested at any moment. It’s open-ended to the point of becoming an ellipses, unresolved while suggesting a whole film of possibilities lies on the other side of this scene. So, Rampart ends as it began, messy and unclean and dangerous, its ideologies unimpeachable, its execution so ambitious that what leaves something to be desired can even be construed into a productive part. Technically, Dave Brown ends the film still out in the world. But his clock is ticking faster.