The other cops call him Date Rape Brown. This is not because he has committed an act of date rape (though, I’m not sure if we can rule that out), but because Dave Brown, in the late eighties, killed a serial date rapist in cold blood on the streets of Los Angeles. Now it’s 1999, and Officer Brown’s guilt and rage and hate have reached their boiling points.
Dave Brown is a dirty cop. He plants evidence, acts on hunches, brutalizes suspects, and behaves in an openly racist way when arresting people of color. His family hates him, especially his older daughter (played by Brie Larson, who in theaters with right now with the totally opposite cop movie 21 Jump Street), who is a lesbian that is constantly under scrutiny from her homophobic father.
Oren Moverman’s Rampart opens and closes with an extreme close-up of its star. Woody Harrelson’s skin is tight over his face. He has no body fat. His eyes seem to pop out of his head. The movie works because of Harrelson. He plays Dave with an inner rage that few actors can duplicate. The close-ups of Harrelson smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol are grotesque. The camera is so close that it stretches and contorts the image. Moverman’s camera makes Dave Brown a monster within the first few seconds of the film. And, for the next two hours, Dave only proves what the images try to convey.
He is the kind of monster that audiences do not get to see very often. Charlize Theron’s Mavis Gary in Young Adult is of similar monstrosity, with her completely skewed image of herself coupled with a frightening narcissism, but Dave Brown is in a much more dangerous position. Unlike Mavis, who mostly just sits around by herself and manipulates others through means of technology, Dave is a police officer who spends his day searching for people to hurt.
The film is bold in its presentation of the protagonist. There is never a moment that makes us care for Dave. However, there are moments that make us sympathize. When Dave is near his daughters, he tries to tone down his personality, leaving us with something of a normal person. However, the more time we see him spend with his daughters, the more we see of his dangerous parenting. His daughters are not fazed by the image of their father passed out drunk, naked, on his bedroom floor. They do not jump when he starts to scream and kick. They wait for him to finish.
Moverman’s previous film, The Messenger (2009), dealt with a similarly disengaged protagonist. In that film, Moverman centered on an Iraq War veteran who is given the “Messenger Detail.” We see a man who has trouble empathizing with the dead slowly implode because of the living. Woody Harrelson plays the protagonist’s Captain in a stoic and ultimately devastating performance (a performance that earned Harrelson an Academy Award nomination).
In Rampart, it is Harrelson’s turn to implode. His performance in the film is staggering in its complexity. There is one particularly moving scene near the end of the film where Dave has an uncharacteristic moment of regret. In this scene, we see the guilt that has been haunting his character since he came back from the Vietnam War and became a cop. We see the weight that perpetual rage and violence can be on a man. We see a man truly ashamed of himself, and it is this moment that makes the film complete.
Moverman is a relatively new director, but his writing extends as far back as 1999’s Jesus’ Son. His writing is honest and brutal, and it often portrays men who are lost within themselves and trying to find a way out. He writes about men who have a violence inside of them, often a violence carried over from war, and sometimes that violence erupts in terrifying ways. Moverman’s real gift is in the balance he finds within the men he writes about. Dave Brown could have been a caricature in the wrong hands, but here he is not so much a monster as he is a tragic figure. He is a product of his father, of his time, of his war, and of his surroundings.
Rampart gets 8/10 empty lighters[Note: While I didn’t mention it in the review, I also want to praise Ben Foster’s cameo appearance as a handicapped meth addict, which is one of the most revelatory performances I’ve seen in such a short amount of screen time. Seriously, make this guy a star — he is one of the finest actors of his generation]