Motel money murder madness: Rampart ****

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 3, 2012)

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In a 1995 interview, hard-boiled scribe James Ellroy said of the protagonists in his (then) current novel, American Tabloid: “…I want to see these bad, bad, bad, bad men come to grips with their humanity.” Anyone who has read any number of his books will glean this as an ongoing theme in his work.

Later in the interview, Ellroy confides that he “…would like to provide ambiguous responses in my readers.” If those were his primary intentions in the screenplay that drives Oren Moverman’s gripping and unsettling new film Rampart (co-written with the director), I would say that he has succeeded mightily on both counts.

And there is, indeed, a very bad, bad, bad, bad man at the heart of this story, and he is veteran LAPD Sgt. Dave “Date Rape” Brown (Woody Harrelson), who earned his charming nickname in the wake of an incident that resulted in the fatal shooting of a suspected serial date rapist. This is another Ellroy trademark; I was reminded of a scene from L.A. Confidential, wherein Lt. Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is cheerfully christened “Shotgun Ed” by the chief after gunning down several suspects.

As there is a 50-year gap that separates Lt. Exley’s era (the 1950s) from Sgt. Brown’s (his story is set in 1999), perhaps this is Ellroy’s way of telegraphing that the more things change, the more they stay the same…at least regarding those who “serve and protect” the City of Lost Angels.

Based on job description, Dave Brown may be a public servant who “protects”, but the more we get to know him, the more obvious it is that he “serves” no one but himself. Despite a career-long propensity for generally disregarding most of the ethical standards one would expect an officer of the law to uphold, Brown has somehow managed to hang on to his badge.

While he embodies many defining characteristics of that noir staple known as the “rogue cop”, he is not quite so in the same sense as, say, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan (who may be a fascist…but at least he’s a fascist with principles). Nor is he a “conflicted cop”, wrestling with his conscience, because he doesn’t have one. He does have a Code, of sorts; he may be racist, sexist and homophobic (again, a typical Ellroy protagonist) but as he helpfully qualifies at one point, “I hate everyone…equally.”

However, Brown’s karma is catching up with him, particularly after he flies off the handle when his police cruiser is struck by another motorist (who may or may not be a “fleeing suspect”). His subsequent beat down of said motorist is caught on camera, resulting in a Rodney King-sized public relations nightmare for the department that puts Brown at odds with a no-nonsense D.A. (Sigourney Weaver) and an Internal Affairs investigator (Ice Cube).

We see an interesting side to Brown in these grilling sessions; he is quite the silver-tongued devil, articulating his viewpoint with a cool intelligence and developed vocabulary that belies his otherwise thuggish demeanor. Regardless,  reality sets in that he needs to scare up serious coin for a defense lawyer, so he reaches out to a crooked ex-LAPD officer (Ned Beatty) who tips him to an “easy” cash grab. The scheme fails, putting Brown into an even deeper hole.

In the meantime, Brown is becoming more and more alienated from his fellow cops, and (more significantly) his family. His family situation is odd, to say the least. He lives with his two ex-wives (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), who are sisters. He has two daughters (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky), one by each. After witnessing Brown’s on-the-job behavior, I was bracing myself for what I anticipated to be inevitable and horrifying scenes of domestic abuse, but interestingly, they never “go there”.

In fact, with the exception of his youngest daughter, who is likely too naïve to see through his bullshit, he is treated by the exes and eldest daughter like a house cat who keeps getting underfoot at the most inconvenient times. And whenever he’s told to fuck off (which is often), he dutifully slinks away to sulk in the corner. It appears that Brown needs his family much more than they need him; because it is only after they finally boot him out for good that he really begins circling the drain, embarking on a debauched sex, drug and alcohol-fueled midnight alley roam (a la Nicholas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas).

Curiously, despite the film’s title (and 1999 time frame), the story has little to do with the infamous Rampart police scandal of the late 1990s, in which over 70 officers assigned to the division’s anti-gang unit were implicated in a shocking laundry list of misdeeds ranging from frame-ups and perjury to bank robbery and murder. There are a few perfunctory references, but I don’t believe that the intention here was to do a docudrama.

Also, the cops involved in the Rampart scandal seemed to operate from a mindless mob mentality; essentially co-opting the gang culture they were supposed to be countering. Brown is a lone wolf, perhaps an anachronism; a sort of “last holdout” to the old school of LAPD corruption that permeates Ellroy’s “L.A. Quartet”, a series of four novels that spans the late 40s through the late 50s (including the aforementioned L.A. Confidential).

This is the second collaboration between director, leading man and the film’s co-producer, actor Ben Foster (virtually unrecognizable here in a minor supporting role as a homeless, wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet). Moverman, Harrelson and Foster teamed up in 2009 for the outstanding drama, The Messenger. In my review, I noted:

…there is a lot about this film that reminds me of those episodic, naturalistic character studies that directors like Hal Ashby and Bob Rafaelson used to turn out back in the 70s; giving their actors plenty of room to breathe and inhabit their characters in a very real and believable manner.

The same can be said for Moverman’s latest project as well. Some viewers may find this approach a little too episodic, especially if one is expecting standard crime thriller tropes. So if you’re seeking car chases, shootouts and a neatly wrapped ending tied with a bow-look elsewhere. Like those classic 70s character studies, the film just sort of…starts (no opening credits, no musical cues), shit happens, and then it sort of…stops (no big finale).

It’s what’s inside this sandwich that matters, namely the fearless and outstanding performance from a gaunt and haunted Harrelson. Larson (as his eldest daughter) is a standout, as is the always excellent Robin Wright (as a burned out defense lawyer), who nearly steals all her scenes with Harrelson.

So, does this bad, bad character ever manage to “come to grips” with his humanity? It may be too little, too late, but he does. It is expressed in an extraordinary, wordless exchange between him and his daughter. Both actors play it beautifully; and it’s so ephemeral that you might miss it if you blink. So don’t blink. Because by the time it registers, Brown has crawled back into the dark urban shadows that spawned him, just another lost angel in the city of night.

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