Article/ Rampart: One Bad Cop

Rampart continues American cinema’s fascination with the underbelly of life in L.A.  But this time, the bad guys are the ones wearing uniforms.

By Jason Wood.

Los Angeles, 1999. Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a Vietnam vet and a Rampart precinct cop, dedicated to doing “the people’s dirty work”. By that he means dispensing his own code of justice, which often blurs the lines between right and wrong, as he governs and punishes seemingly at will. When he is caught on tape beating a black suspect, he descends into a personal and emotional hell; the consequences of past sins, and his refusal to change his ways in light of a department-wide corruption scandal, seal his fate.

A searching exploration of psychology, morality and violence, Rampart is director Oren Moverman’s explosive follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Messenger. It is loosely based on a real LAPD scandal that took place in the early 1990s. Allegations of misconduct and corruption among the Rampart officers resulted in an inquiry that severely compromised the credibility of the force. However, the film transcends mere reportage. Moverman employs historical events as a backdrop to investigate the compromised integrity of his main protagonist. Did the Rampart district create a state of mind amongst its law enforcers that allowed figures in positions of authority to believe they were beyond censure or culpability?

Dave is pushed to the edge as he internalises his fear and anguish about a world that ceases to make sense. That world is populated by two ex-wives who are sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), two daughters, an aging mentor dispensing bad advice, a series of random women and the heft of the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Department, who are breathing down his neck. And when he is stripped of all his machismo, chauvinism, homophobia, racism, arrogance, aggression and misanthropy, there may be little left to redeem him as a man.

The film draws inspiration from the Western genre and the idea of an unwavering individual trapped  in a time of upheaval. In adopting Brown’s point of view, Moverman has created an engrossing character study of one man’s descent into paranoia and retribution. And as the man whose past has come back to haunt him, Harreslon, known for his anti-authority sensibilities, gives a compelling performance. His is a complex individual who has severely compromised his ideals. Adding depth to the story is an impressive supporting cast, featuring Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster (like Harrelson, reunited with Moverman after their excellent work together on The Messenger), Robin Wright and veteran actor Ned Beatty, who is especially memorable as Brown’s duplicitous mentor.

We open in classic Michael Mann territory, with some fluid camerawork and calibrated movement, but Moverman’s visual and sonic aesthetic soon segues into something more distinct and idiosyncratic. Shot mostly during the day and employing natural light, the majority of the camerawork is hand-held, with each scene almost entirely comprised of a master shot. The incessant white noise of talk radio shows constantly keeps the characters on edge, underpinning the sense that something, somewhere,  always seems to be happening. This cacophony is accompanied by Tinderstick’s band member Dickon Hinchliffe’s mesmeric soundtrack. Alongside Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, Rampart offers one of the most incendiary portraits of Los Angeles in recent movie memory. Treating downtown L.A. as a character in its own right, Moverman brings an outsider’s eye to his portrait of the city, giving the film a tremendous sense of place and feeling of authenticity. In this regard, and in the creation of the deeply flawed and multi-faceted characters, Moverman is ably assisted by his co-writer, James Ellroy. No stranger to the city of fallen angels and stories of redemption and the price of atonement, Ellroy wrote into the script numerous iconic Dowtown L.A. locations that add a charge to the film’s proceedings.

Notwithstanding the rapturous acclaim it received at the recent Toronto and London film festivals, Rampart may undoubtedly be an acquired taste. The central character is a difficult man to spend time with and the film assiduously resists making him sympathetic. However, fans of the American cinema of the1970s and, in particular, the films of Bob Rafelson, Alan J. Pakula and Sidney Lumet, may well find Moverman’s L.A. opus a rich and rewarding experience.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas.

Rampart screens at Cornerhouse from Fri 24 February