Oren Moverman’s Rampart is a terrific film: tense, shocking, complex, mesmerizing. We’ve all seen zillions of movies that use a hand-held camera to set a visual mood of random, zigzaggy “caught” reality. But hours after I saw Rampart, the story of a very bad L.A. patrolman, played with intricate demonic force by Woody Harrelson (imagine his wily sociopath from Natural Born Killers…but 20 years older and on the other side of the law), I still couldn’t figure out how Moverman was able to give the film such a raw, hand-held vérité look yet still create a mood that’s so… unique. It has something to do with the way he layers on close-ups, using them to make the audience feel as if it’s surrounded, and also with how he smudges the background colors, turning them into a dirty kaleidoscope, the way Scorsese did in Taxi Driver, so that we never feel we’re too far outside the mind of Harrelson’s Dave Brown, a veteran officer who’s like a coiled, super-intelligent animal let loose in the jungle.
Dave is an old-school LAPD badass, a viciously self-justifying racist who views himself as a “soldier,” and Rampart, named for the dangerous, densely populated west and northwest Los Angeles districts his division patrols, presents him as fierce kind of relic. The movie is set in 1999, when the department was still working to re-tailor its image for the post-Rodney King world, but Dave, who beats up suspects, and will kill criminal “scum” without very much hesitation, is shrewd about covering his tracks. He’s a sordid predator who prowls the city, his mind oiled by martinis that never quite get him drunk (just angry), sleeping with women who are drawn, often against their better judgment, by his hostile physical power. He’s also got a rather kinky domestic setup that feels very L.A. creepy: He married two sisters (not at the same time), played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, and now the women, Dave, and their kids all live in the same adjoining houses; he won’t let them go (literally). The violence you feel watching Harrelson isn’t in his actions — it’s in the threat that comes off him like steam heat, the constant possibility of violence.
Rampart was co-written by Moverman and James Ellroy, and it just about seethes with ugly insider knowledge of what really goes on in the minds of cops. Dave is a fearless officer — in one way, a star — who has been in hot water for most of his career, going back to the scandal in which he killed a serial date-rapist (hence Dave’s nickname: Date-Rape) but got away with it because he passed off what may have been a cold-blooded execution as “street justice.” The other beat cops fear and admire him, because he acts out their aggression, and whenever he’s called before a supervisor, or a commission, or what have you, he snaps into diabolically clever bureaucratic language. As a crook, Dave would have been a big success, but as a cop, he’s a legally sanctioned sociopath.
The movie has a lot in common with Bad Lieutenant (both versions), except that that tale was studded with baroquely outsize noir elements. Moverman, the former screenwriter (I’m Not There) who made his directorial debut with the homefront Iraq drama The Messenger (2009), works in a mode that’s more hellishly close-to-the-bone gritty. He turns L.A. into a jagged inferno that starts to circle around Dave like a noose. A number of scenes in The Messenger were brilliant, but the movie as a whole grew a touch unwieldy. Now I think that Moverman emerges as a major directorial voice. He’s got more than talent — he’s got a filmmaking fever. Rampart is a thriller on fire.
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