Rampart, Oren Moverman’s follow-up to 2009’s critically-lauded The Messenger, comes with a high pedigree. It’s an original screenplay by novelist James Ellroy, author of such contemporary crime classics as The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. And it stars Woody Harrelson in a role that almost earned him an Oscar nomination, and has been promoted as “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.” I guess that means we’re not counting television, then, because Vic Mackey and the rest of The Shield‘s strike team have Harrelson’s Dave Brown beat hands down. And it’s unlikely anyone will ever touch Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant.
There are a lot of great supporting performances here, from Sigourney Weaver as a beleaguered and time-worn police commissioner, Ice Cube as an IAD investigator, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as Dave’s two ex-wives who also happen to be sisters, and particularly Robin Wright as an alcoholic defense attorney who gets involved with Dave Brown as he’s spiraling downward. The relationship Harrelson has with his two ex-wives is loaded with fuel for drama; they live next door to each other, each of them has a child by Dave, and he spends his time shuttling between the two houses. They’ll often all eat dinner together, with Dave trying to procure sex from whichever sister is willing to have him that night, which is often neither. It’s an incredibly toxic living situation for all involved, and there’s a lot of fascinating drama to be mined here, but it never really is completely. As much as his relationships with both sisters are sketched out, and we see that the essence of the character is struggling for love and acceptance and trying to hold his fractured family together with every last bit of his strength, it’s still quite obvious we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Both as a result of this extremely unhealthy pair of failed marriages and his reputation as the dirtiest cop on the force, Dave’s two daughters are pretty severely fucked up. Brie Larson, playing the eldest of the two, has a couple of nice scenes where we begin to see the extent of the damage, yet again it feels as though what we see is only scratching the surface. Harrelson has stated in interviews that Dave’s home life wasn’t such a big part of the original script, and that it became a larger and larger part of the film the more they rehearsed, shot, and improvised. It’s hard to imagine what Rampart would have looked like without these scenes, because Dave’s life on the police force doesn’t really receive much development or screen time.
The next most important relationship in the film is the one Dave has with Robin Wright’s Linda Fentress. If Nixon and Heche as sisters Barbara and Catherine represent a window into Dave’s past and his failed relationships, Linda is a chance for Dave to start fresh. But Dave is too far gone, too mired in his own corruption, too desperate a misanthrope, too self-hating and self-punishing and caught in a cycle of desperation and despair. And since it takes one to know one and like attracts like, Linda is a world of damaged instability unto herself. The only way these two could make it work and salvage a relationship is if neither of them were the people they are. Yet Linda is someone who can see Dave honestly for who he is, and could probably accept him if only he could accept himself.
What constitutes plot in Rampart follows Dave beating a civilian who runs his car into Dave’s patrol vehicle and then attempts to flee the scene on foot. Dave chases after him, catches him, and gives him a Rodney King style beat-down, all captured on someone’s cell phone and uploaded to the internet. This initiates a behavioral hearing and an IAD investigation as the LAPD try to determine if there’s a way they can legally remove this corrupt relic from the force. On leave from active duty, Dave is left to wallow in the wreck his life has become, and makes several more terrible choices.
Harrelson may not be the most corrupt cop we’ve ever seen on screen, but what’s different this time out is the way he avoids cliche and smartly plays against the writing. Many a scene is rife with opportunity for Harrelson to top out, pound his chest in macho bravado, break furniture, and threaten his family. But Harrelson always subverts these moments and chooses to underplay them. This is a guy who’s probably turned to violence and lashed out in the past, and the one thing he’s learned is how to curtail his behavior. All of the anger and frustration is still there, but it lurks beneath the surface and Dave knows that acting it out will be the endgame to his tenous relationship with his two ex-wives and his daughters. So he bites his tongue and takes a walk, and channels all of his energy into the corrupt way he approaches his police work. Harrelson also plays Dave as much more intelligent and self-aware than your average explosive cop. This is a guy who sees the big picture and understands how all of the little parts work, even his own misguided actions. When he does something wrong, he’s well aware of how wrong it is, but he believes it’s the only action left to a man at the end of his rope.
There’s plenty of meat in Rampart to fuel a compelling film, but the problem is that this is a character study in search of a story. We witness Dave Brown’s downward spiral and a police force trying to evolve out of the late 80s and early 90s and start fresh while sweeping the old, corrupt guard under the rug and retiring them off of the force. But other than Dave’s crisis of conscience and his inability to adapt to the changing face of the force, Rampart doesn’t concern itself with narrative. Dave Brown is a compelling character, and Harrelson breathes a lot of complex life into him, but there’s no case being worked on and even Dave being investigated isn’t something that receives much narrative structure. The film ends before reaching anything resembling a third act or a climax, yet it never seems as though this was an intended goal in the first place. It’s a disappointing effort from Moverman, especially in light of some of the critical acclaim the film has received which will undoubtedly lead audiences to expect something more from it, and it’s quite obvious why Rampart never received a very wide release. To echo a sentiment Stephen King once made about stories with beautiful prose yet without much of a plot, you can have the most beautiful car in the world, but it doesn’t do anyone any good if it just sits in the garage up on cinder blocks and isn’t capable of actually driving anywhere.