Rampart

Posted by Michael Parsons on February 24, 2012 in / No Comments

 

(This review was originally published on February 24, 2012 at Reel Film News)

“Rampart” is familiar territory for novelist/screenwriter James Ellroy, whose version of Los Angeles has seen its share of corrupt cops (“Street Kings”, “Dark Blue” and “L.A. Confidential”). Director and co-writer Oren Moverman takes a surprisingly subtle tack in conveying the ugliness of the material, which ostensibly concerns the police brutality scandal plaguing the city’s Rampart precinct in the late ’90s. But as an intense character study, the film focuses almost entirely on Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), a corrupt LAPD veteran who seems to be caught in a destructive, self-fulfilling prophecy. The story works, most of the time.

rampartInitially, I thought “Rampart” was going to be a lot more like an episode of “The Shield”, with a department embroiled in controversy and only a few clear-cut protagonists. Though it draws plenty of  parallels there, this film isn’t quite as blunt; the violence takes a backseat to the mentality of its central character, whose faulty decision making is perpetuated by paranoia.

After being caught on video beating a man who collides with his police cruiser at an intersection, Brown becomes the center of unwanted legal attention at the department. At first, his cockiness is more evident than his insecurities. Though he’s perceived as a racist, his language is not weighed down with obvious derogatory terms. Instead, his extensive knowledge of the law, which he spouts like a textbook during his defense, along with his corrosive cynicism, reinforces a wasted, if not frightening intelligence.

As much as the film might echo the true events of the time, “Rampart” dedicates itself only to Dave’s delusional world, one where he’s shacked up with two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), each with whom he has a daughter. Brown’s behavior toward women fluctuates rampart_3_cropscale_990x410-80between chivalrous and chauvinistic, as if he doesn’t know whether to be controlling or submissive. He trawls the bars at night in search of companionship, and develops an odd relationship with a defense attorney (Robin Wright), a courtship that seems more driven by disdain than attraction. And his only ‘friend’ seems to be an equally despicable ex-cop (played by Ned Beatty) who occasionally throws him a tip when he’s desperate for cash. Harrelson looks like he’s in a constant hypertensive state – red-faced, with an errant vein pulsing at his temple – as if his demons are always lurking just beneath the surface.

Avoiding convention at all costs (sometimes at the expense of reason) “Rampart” is a skewed perspective, mixing the mundane with the surreal, as we’re immersed in Dave’s every day life. Brown’s idiosyncrasies control the movie; emphasis is put on everything from his unusual cult-like living situation to his dietary habits (he never eats, save a rather disturbing binge scene). He exists on a regimen of cigarettes and pharmaceuticals.

gallery_slide_101-500x332Though “Rampart”‘s ensemble cast (particularly Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Ice Cube) is not entirely wasted, they’re only around to provide some semblance of authority. The rest of the film, like Brown’s deteriorating life, seems to have no parameters, which conveys his loss of control. I think Moverman and Ellroy have clearly avoided cramming the gory particulars down our throats, unlike other films of its kind, but in doing so leave us to make too many of our own assumptions. It’s not always clear if they’re challenging us to sympathize with a tortured, misunderstood man or if they’re just exploring the complexities of a damaged soul. Is there supposed to be a redeeming quality to this character? Maybe we’re simply supposed to hate him for his actions. Regardless, Harrelson carries the film as believably as if his own psyche were under extreme duress; it’s not the most pleasant journey, but the performance is pretty damn impressive.

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Michael Parsons

Father. Realtor®. Movie nut. After pestering my parents for their commentary on “Star Wars” when I was four years old, my mind went into a creative frenzy. I’d imagined something entirely different than the actual film, which I didn’t end up seeing until its 1979 re-release at the Uptown Theater in Washington, DC. This was my formal introduction to the cinema.

During that long wait, which felt like an eternity to a child, my mind was being molded by more corrosive stuff like “Trilogy of Terror” and “Rosemary’s Baby”, most of which I’d conned various babysitters into letting me watch on television ( I convinced one poor lady that “Jaws” was actually “Moby Dick”).

The folks were pretty strict in that regard, so the less appropriate it was for a kid to watch, the more I was fascinated by it. Horror staples like “Halloween” and “Friday the 13th”, as well as lesser-known low-budget fare like “Madman”, “Sleepaway Camp” and “Pieces” all ended up sneaking their way into the VHS on a regular basis.

Since then, I’ve developed an obsession with the entire film industry. Even though I watch and review a wide breadth of films these days, my appreciation for the campy, poorly lit micro-budgeters still lends itself to my evolving perspective on movies just as much as the summer blockbusters and Oscar contenders. As I recall my trips to the movie theater, I realize that this stuff is about much more than just a fleeting piece of entertainment.

A couple years ago, I was finally given the opportunity to lend my opinion on films to a publication, The Rogers Revue, with a subsequent run at Reel Film News. It's been both a privilege and a gateway to what we’re doing now. Most of my experience has come from interviewing independent filmmakers, who consistently promote innovation. The filmmaking process is grueling and relatively unforgiving.

Fellow film enthusiast Eddie Pasa and I have created DC Filmdom as a medium for film reviews, discussion, and (inevitably) some debate. And so, the creative frenzy continues.

(Michael is a member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association).

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