LAPD veteran Dave Brown is a vile, disgusting man. He is a sexist, racist, womaniser, drunkard, dirty cop and patent homophobe. This, incidentally, is not my judgement of him, but that of his own daughter. It’s pretty accurate. How much does that tell you?
Co-written by James Ellroy and starring Woody Harrelson in the main role, Rampart serves both as compelling crime melodrama and scorching character study. When we first meet Brown (the Harrelson character), we take an immediate dislike to him. He stinks of corruption and arrogance; he is a control freak, whose selfishness and cynicism damage and infect all those around him. He has two daughters by two different women (both sisters, as chance would have it); despite the fact that his adultery is an almost nightly occurrence, he insists on living together with the two women and their respective children, to ‘keep the family intact’. The pain and despair this has caused is devastating.
Yet this is a man quite capable of charisma, and perhaps in the crudest sense possible, charm. He can, after all, be seductive; in a brilliant early scene, we see him pick up a woman at his local bar; first conversation, then sex. His target is sensible, and perhaps looking for a good time, a friend, maybe even a relationship. Her questions are amicable and fair. The disappointment after that vacuous act later on is captured with incredible insight and realism by the filmmaker.
Dave’s behaviour ranges from puerile to savage; the weight of the law begins to force itself upon him when he is caught on camera almost beating a man to death after the latter crashed his vehicle into Dave’s police car. The extent of his obstinacy and self-delusion is mind blowing; an amazing piece of cinematography, in which the camera swings round in a circle, abruptly cutting between Dave and his superiors during a heated discussion on the subject of his brutality, emphasises the illogical but never-ending egoism and suppressed insecurity that drive him.
Sex, as in most works with Ellroy’s name attached, plays a huge role. At first, we think Dave is just producing excess testosterone, or is simply a chauvinistic pig by nature. But we soon realise there is something desperate about his constant affairs, about his insatiable need to control and assert his authority. Perhaps to confirm his masculinity, or escape his problems. Certainly, the brief relationship he strikes up with a lawyer, as confused and desperate as he is in many ways, sheds much light on Dave’s character.
I’ve seen it argued that Dave is completely immoral in other reviews. This isn’t true. He may have ruined the lives of his family, and everyone he has come into contact with, but he does come to realise that. Too long he has spent running away from his responsibilities; at least on the job, he can fall back on the tired, formal jargon that has etched itself on his brain. But what about his children?
I think it would be unfair to give any more specifics on the plot. Technically, this movie is something special: intimately filmed, with heavy usage of artificial lighting (neon red, in particular, is used to great effect), and a handful of brilliant sequences. This is where we begin to see Dave at his most desperate.
Rampart is a formidable movie about a man well past his sell-by-date, whose brutality, closed-mindedness, insecurity and immaturity have destroyed any chance of happiness he might ever have had, and may well have destroyed the same thing for those nearest to him. There is a heartbreaking sequence near the end where, for the first time, Dave tries to speak to his children honestly, in hope of salvaging his relationship with them. It is a film about despair, about a corrupt society that has moulded a man whose failures and flaws are killing him from the inside out, without mercy. His own childhood is left deliberately ambiguous, but his father, another corrupt cop, seems to have been his role model. Thus the corruption and destruction seems to be continuing through the generations in ripples and circles.
The possibility of redemption has certainly manifested itself by the end of the film. Hope has come, at least for Dave’s family. As far as he is concerned, perhaps self-knowledge is the first step. The movie’s final scene is a modification of the opening sequence, and we have to ask ourselves, can we see the change in Dave? There is no easy answer. There isn’t meant to be.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (March ’12)