Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Movie #20 Rampart

I have in my head a perfect cast list. It's not composed rationally, nor with any particular story in mind. But imagine a film-geek heaven in which a magnificently scripted, directed and produced feature plays forever, this is the roll-call. John Goodman's on there. So is Nicholas Cage. So is Sharon Stone. Rampart, extraordinarily for a non-Coen film, contains three more: Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and (albeit briefly) Steve Buscemi.

But what is Rampart? Set in the eponymous LA police district in the late nineties, it's essentially a character piece focusing on Dave Brown (Harrelson), a racist, sexist, violent and corrupt beat cop who epitomises the very characteristics with which the LAPD wished to disassociate itself at that time. Brown's home life is no less complex. He lives with two sisters with whom he has a child each; despite a flickering relationship with both, he also picks up women from a sleazy nightclub. Beyond drinking and chainsmoking, he enjoys occasional pill-binges; uppers and downers to balance him on the tightrope.

Though only lightly plotted (the story comes from the mind of James Ellroy, author of such distinctively sleazy crime novels as American Tabloid and LA Confidential), Rampart does follow a bit of a narrative thread. Brown is caught on camera giving a fleeing perpetrator a violent beat-down, and is used as a scapegoat/distraction by his superiors, anxious to turn attention away from the scandal brewing in the Rampart district in which Brown works.

To be honest, I was a little at sea with the context. I had considered myself a serious fan of all things LA, but I was not aware of the real-life Rampart scandals. Before you go in, it probably helps to give yourself a quick primer on these, as the film assumes a little knowledge on your part. Ellroy does love to mix in the fact and the fiction - his American Tabloid is a masterful, if superchargedly masculine, re-imagining of the Kennedy hit - and I was left baffled by references to previous crimes that were skimmed over earlier on.

One peculiarity of Ellroy's writing is that it remains non-judgemental on Brown - we simply get to inhabit his moral universe for 90 minutes, understanding his motivations if rarely agreeing with them. This plays to Harrelson's strengths, and clearly director (and co-writer) Oren Moverman - whose rather more sedate debut The Messenger also starred Harrelson - has allowed his leading man to really inhabit this character. The result is an outstanding (indeed, Oscar-worthy) performance; Harrelson truly inhabits this godawful cop, helping the audience to understand that he's not just the badguy, he's human, he's complex, he does things for a reason, even if his reasoning is too-often flawed.

The supporting cast are actually a bit of a mixed bag. Sigourney Weaver is fabulous, except that we don't get nearly enough of her (when are we next going to get a starring role from her?). Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche are fine as the put-upon sisters, as is Ice Cube as the prissy DA's investigator. Less good - though perhaps this is because there characters just don't hang together - are Ben Foster and Ned Beatty; Steve Buscemi is essentially here in a cameo role, so don't get your hopes up.

Perhaps the big talking point is Moverman's unusual style of direction, which I liked. It's pretty in-your-face, with zooms, dollies, tracking shots, spinning shots and so on - it is flamboyant and attention-seeking - but it works, in a Robert Altman kind of way (and certainly holds together much more cogently than, say, Black Swan or Another Earth; there's a lot to be said for consistency of vision). And speaking of Robert Altman, there is something very New Hollywood about the film altogether. There is some uncompromising acting, an over-arching bleakness, themes of corruption and degradation, a central character who is somewhat beastly, even an ambiguous ending. Moverman - who started out as a screenwriter - is a director to keep a close eye on, a developing talent with real cinematic flair.

On the whole, it's one of those movies that's worth seeing once, then probably never again. But do see it, if only for Woody Harrelson's stunning performance.



  1. Great write-up! Definitely interested in watching this. Woody Harrelson always puts in a good performance.

  2. Really great review, am even more excited about seeing this.

  3. Cheers guys, definitely a movie worth seeing (if not a future classic).

  4. I've just read positive reviews about this one. I'll check it out soon!