Woody Harrleson delivers such a seething, magnificent performance as a bigoted knucklehead cop in Rampart, I’m still not sure why director Oren Moverman is so hell-bent on keeping us from being able to look at it.
Of course, Harrelson has always been a brilliant comedian, but his best roles reveal something sinister behind that good ole boy demeanor. Lord knows, he hasn’t made it easy to be a fan. Harrelson tends to disappear for years, often more concerned with his weed-friendly dietary regimens than his movie career. Any other actor would’ve tried to capitalize on his brilliant performance in The People vs. Larry Flynt, but instead Harrelson just noodled around on Broadway and all but vanished for a decade or so.
Harrelson’s back with a vengeance in Rampart, a movie that starts strong, quickly drifts into terrible and only works on the rare occasions when Harrelson’s searing performance is allowed to shine. Co-scripted by James Ellroy—that gloriously skuzzy chronicler of Los Angeles’ law and order underbelly—the film stars Harrelson as Dave “Date Rape” Brown, a piggish patrolman caught in the late-1990’s Rampart division scandal. Starved down to sinew and raw attitude, Dave seems to subsist on cigarettes, martinis and xenophobic bluster. The running joke in the movie is that he doesn’t even eat.
But Dave’s days of busting heads and torturing suspects are quickly coming to a close. Too bad he’s the last one to notice. Positioned as the fall guy for the department after a Rodney King–style beating, he’s suddenly up to his ears in inquiries from police head honcho Sigourney Weaver. Then, Steve Buscemi makes a cameo as the camera pointlessly pans away on some sort of lazy-Susan apparatus.
Dave lives in a modest suburban sprawl with his daughters and two ex-wives—who happen to be sisters. At night, he drinks his way through dinner until he’s finally boozed up enough to choose a companion. (Whichever casting director picked Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon to co-star as siblings deserves some sort of special award.) Other nights he finds himself shacked up with Robin Wright’s self-sabotaging defense attorney, a terrible idea made all the more attractive because of how wrong it is.
So far, so good—even if there’s a bit of deja vu for anybody who follows James Ellroy’s work. (Kurt Russell already played this role to perfection in the underrated 2002 L.A. riots thriller Dark Blue , while Keanu Reeves had a considerably tougher time of it in 2008’s Street Kings .)
The biggest problem here is that Rampart has been photographed in a fashion so mannered, it’s almost unwatchable. Moverman gimmicks-up every interaction with art-school flourishes. Entire dialogue sequences are conducted with our only vantage points cutting back and forth to close ups on the rear of the listener’s head—blocking any view of whoever happens to be speaking. Crucial moments are so over-conceptualized that the camera often glides upward, mid-sentence, into a distracting, unnatural angle for reasons that don’t even make much psychological sense. I felt especially sorry for Ice Cube, as a dogged Internal Affairs detective so lagging many steps behind Harrelson that during one of his infrequent, often bewildering, appearances he is walking at a distance literally unable to keep pace with his quarry.
The actor and director previously worked together in 2009’s The Messenger, an earnest, well-acted Iraq war drama in which Harrelson’s slow-burn turn was only occasionally upstaged by Moverman’s gratuitous long-takes and I-went-to-film-school camera shots. That well-written, well-acted movie suffered from a mild case of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing!” syndrome, a condition that has apparently metastasized during the years between films.
After much (perhaps too much) time spent puzzling over Rampart’s often confounding choices, I think I might finally kinda get what Moverman was shooting for. Dave’s in an almost super-heroic state of denial about the severity of his circumstances, so I’m assuming the picture’s strategy of visual obfuscation must be meant to mirror his blinkered view of the world. Problem is, that’s the kind of direction that’s a lot more fun to talk about afterward than it is to actually sit through.
It’s not helped by the fact that Rampart ’s script is more of a situation than a story. We’re just stuck with a lot of long, unpleasant scenes in which things play out pretty much exactly as expected. The only person surprised is Date Rape Dave, who regards his misfortunes with entitled bafflement.
Yet despite so many disastrous decisions, Harrelson’s performance still haunts. Lean, insinuating and spouting some of Ellroy’s most colorful invective, he leers and slurs his way through the movie. Always teetering on the edge of violence, he’s odious and magnetic.
Director: Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster and Sigourney Weaver
Oren Moverman has directed only two features, namely 2010’s The Messenger and the new Rampart. But his name has popped up elsewhere. Moverman’s largely served as a screenwriting collaborator on oft-structurally adventurous projects. Moverman talked to us after this year’s annoyingly safe Oscar race failed to nominate Woody Harrelson for his arguably career peak work.