“The most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.”
Director: Oren Moverman
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver
Synopsis: Set in 1999 Los Angeles, veteran police officer Dave Brown, the last of the renegade cops, works to take care of his family, and struggles for his own survival.
It’s often claimed that the mentality of police officers and career criminals are remarkably similar, and Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Dave Brown, a long-standing, morally corrupt LA police officer in 1999 in Oren Moverman‘s Rampart does much to substantiate this theory. There’s little doubt that, did he not wear the uniform of a police officer he would in all likelihood be wearing the uniform of a prisoner in some high security facility. On the surface, Brown initially appears to be a model officer, capable of citing legal precedents from memory, but already the cracks are beginning to show – he is, in fact, the physical embodiment of the notorious corruption-riddled Ramparts division that he serves.
Brown’s domestic life is as complex the man himself: he shares a house with his two ex-wives and his two troubled daughters (they’re both half-sisters and cousins, so it’s hardly surprising there’s a few issues that need resolving there); late in the movie, they and Harrelson share a devastating scene of such pain and poignancy that it becomes clear to both Brown and us just how badly he is damaging them.. At work he cruises the streets like a crime lord. His station moniker is ‘Date Rape’ because he once killed an alleged date rapist under dubious circumstances, and you sense that a part of him revels in the notoriety this episode brings him. He’s a brutal man, dispensing violence to those he feels deserve it with impunity (’only ever bad guys,’ he insists as justification) until one of his violent outbursts is captured on video, a development which leads to a media outcry and which triggers the beginning of Brown’s downfall.
Woody Harrelson, with whom director Moverman worked on his debut feature The Messenger, is in every scene of Rampart, and he delivers a performance that deserves more than the two Best Actor nominations he received for minor awards. He possesses the wolfish grin of the predator, but the taut skin and emaciated body hint at something rotten within (we only see Brown eat once, gorging himself until he throws up, suggesting that he is perhaps terminally ill). Harrelson inhabits the skin of Dave Brown with a conviction and intensity that brings a human dimension to a characterisation that comes across as a soulless monster at times. And yet James Ellroy’s pitch black script gives Brown a fierce intelligence which reinforces the parallel with the police force itself: a complex but efficient machine possessing all the necessary components to perform the tasks required of it, but putrefying from within because of a sickness it ignores and doesn’t care to address.
Rampart isn’t an easy film to watch. It’s not a crime movie in the conventional sense, but a dark character study of a complex, fatally flawed individual who is symptomatic of the vein of wilful abnegation of responsibility that has run through modern society for far too long now. All that matters to too many people today is strict adherence to a personal code of justice, no matter how badly that code may be at odds with society’s own pre-defined set of rules. It’s a tough message, one that most people won’t appreciate being forced to hear, but Ellroy and Harrelson deliver it with such uncompromising certainty of purpose that to sit back and ignore it is virtually impossible.