The title of the film refers to the LAPD Rampart scandal of the late '90s, but the story follows a single cop, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), who's trying to hold everything together by any means necessary. And I do mean "everything": the city of Los Angeles; the probie cop he's responsible for; his exes, two sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) who live with him; the daughter he's had with each sister. (…No kidding. Better film-going through Punnett squares.) Brown is an unreconstructed misanthrope, paranoid, always on the make, drinks too much, but he's got dimension; he'll unravel skeins of synonyms, or tease his daughters in that clueless way dads have sometimes, and become recognizable and more interesting. He's revolting and attractive at the same time.
I liked Oren Moverman's last feature, The Messenger, a lot. He relied too much on exposition and fetishized the vignette in places, but Harrelson's and Ben Foster's performances in that film broke my heart. Moverman has more confidence in his visual storytelling in Rampart, and trusts in his actors to carry the momentum. On top of great contrast casting from top to bottom — Steve "Nucky Thompson" Buscemi as an embattled DA; Robert Wisdom, a.k.a. The Wire's Hamsterdam architect Bunny Colvin, as Brown's sergeant; Ice Cube as an implacable investigator — he gets great turns again from Harrelson, and from Foster as a semi-homeless witness. Robin Wright, who can sometimes let the camera angle do her work for her, is fully invested here as a burned-out attorney, and I would watch an entire movie about Sigourney Weaver's character (the sequence in which she impatiently presides over a verbal catfight between Brown and Buscemi's Blago is hilarious).
Moverman's ability to create dense, chewy atmosphere is fantastic. He has a few missteps, though; the film is set in 1999 but not styled for that year, and all the loose wavy hair and just-so cardigans of the aughts is occasionally a distraction. And the rave-y scene towards the end is a mistake, seeming designed to kill screentime by making points we already heard. (Some of that may be on James Ellroy, who co-wrote.) When Brown hit the deck outside the club, I wasn't sure the movie could get me back.
But it did, by letting Harrelson do his thing. He's often shot to emphasize his aging — the avocado-pit-with-toothpicks body some old men get that Brown is moving towards — but then at other times he looks very young and beautifully sad, and some of that is the DP, Bobby Bukowski, but most of it is Harrelson himself. Moverman holds a shot on Harrelson as his daughter Helen (Brie Larson), disgusted and hopeful about him at once, drops some knowledge on her younger sister, and the dozen stories that pass over his face in a handful of seconds act like a Sour Patch Kid to the viewer's brain. The confession that follows isn't entirely credible, but Harrelson absolutely is. Could someone please drop some gold on that guy? Because the thing is, his awesomeness is not new. It goes back to Larry Flynt, at least, but everyone's still acting like it's a fluke that the Cheers guy can bring it.
It's got flaws, but Harrelson is riveting. Give it a try.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films Anne Heche Ben Foster Boardwalk Empire Bobby Bukowski Brie Larson Cynthia Nixon henh? Ice Cube James Ellroy movies Oren Moverman Oscars 2012 Death Race Rampart Robert Wisdom Robin Wright Sigourney Weaver Steve Buscemi The Wire Woody Harrelson