Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rampart: A Monster Ordered to Protect and Serve

Directed By: Oren Moverman
Written By: James Ellory and Oren Movermann
Starring: Woody Harrleson, Sigourney Weaver, Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Ice Cube, Anne Hesche, and Brie Larson
Director of Photography: Bobby Bukowski, Editor: Jay Rabinowitz, Production Designer: David Wasco, Original Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Rated: R

            Rampart begins with a series of profile shots of police officer Dave Brown driving through the streets of Los Angeles. Sporting a pair of black shades with gold rims and often one (and sometimes two!) cigarettes in his mouth, we get a good look at a man who we can’t see because those shades create a mirror. Who is this man behind the glasses and why is he so angry? But you can’t explain what drives “Date Rape” Dave, a nickname he got for allegedly murdering a known rapist. He simply exists in a world where he believes his corruption is not just legally fine, but the invisible hand of justice, where he is detective, court, and executioner, all tied into one.

            And so begins a violent and often brilliant new drama from writer-director Oren Moverman, who last brought us the intense war drama The Messenger. Here, Mr. Moverman has teamed up with the legendary pulp novelist James Ellory (The Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential) to bring us a story of justice run completely amuck, but without any heavy hand giving us some liberal message about it. Rampart takes it title from the infamous scandals in the LA Police division in 1999, where the film takes place, but Mr. Moverman and Mr. Ellroy move the story to instead a fictional man who is coming in much too close contact with both physical and mental demons.

            When finding someone to play a tortured soul of hate, contempt, and complete rage, you need a great character actor, and Mr. Moverman’s Messenger co-star Woody Harrelson slidely into that role like a slug covered in the dirty slime of corruption. Mr. Harrleson is a character actor at heart, and roles in Natural Born Killers and Zombieland have shown off his charisma for playing characters on the complete edge of society, much less reality. In Rampart, Mr. Harrelson digs deep to make his character completely repulsive, much less unlikeable. But Mr. Harrleson has so much strength in his oversized body and often soulless eyes that you can’t take your eyes off of him, drawn like the moth to the flame.

            Rampart is even looser in terms of its narrative than The Messenger, not to mention the densely plotted narratives of Mr. Ellory’s novels. Dave is involved in a number of cases; he’s got heat from a superior (Sigoruney Weaver) for a viral video of him beating a man who crashed into his police car (“assault with a deadly weapon,” Dave insists). An attractive lawyer (Robin Wright) seduces him, though Dave is constantly suspicious of her motivations. He’s also being investigated by the DA’s office (Ice Cube is a really juicy role) and trying to scrap together cash for lawyer’s fees by taking hints from a retired dirty cop (Ned Beatty). Plus, he’s got two daughters to take care of, one from two sisters that live in the home next to him, a sign of submission as well as protection.

            Mostly though, Dave moves from person to place as a destructive force with no reason or rhythm. Mr. Moverman and his director of photography Bobby Bukowski give the film an intense digital look throughout full of high contrast colors and dark shadows. This is neo noir on a whole different level as the intensity of the close-ups, and staggered and broken compositions, and vivid color palette of Los Angeles bolden Dave’s rampage mentality. At times, it seems that Mr. Moverman chooses angles or camera pans for more aesthetic reasons than those that match his narrative, but Mr. Harrleson’s loose and steamrolling performance keeps the film in place.

            Late in the film, Dave’s younger daughter asks him if he’s done all the terrible things that people have said. Dave admits that he is the monster. Rampart is an intense film of self-discovery that owes more to Heart of Darkness than the gritty police films of previous years. Both Mr. Harrelson and Mr. Ellroy have demons in their family past—Mr. Harrelson’s father was a murderer, and Mr. Ellory’s mother became an unsolved murder. Their talents, tapped by the genius of Mr. Moverman, thus create a stunning portrait of the bitter hell than the human soul can become, and the consequences it leads to those that come in contact with such a person. 

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