The ads for Oren Moverman’s film “Rampart,” his second directorial effort following the outstanding film “The Messenger,” proclaim “Woody Harrelson is the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.” Bad news, “Rampart.” Not only is Woody Harrelson not even in the top ten of the most corrupt cops ever seen onscreen, he might not even be in the top fifty.
Then again, he could be highly ranked, if I was ever allowed to discover what exactly he’s done to get himself into the position he finds himself in when we’re dropped into the story of this John Cassavetes meets “Bad Lieutenant” exercise in acting tour de force. While not a horrible film, it never gives the viewer enough to work with to discover the motivations, causes or effects that have shaped Harrelson’s bad boy cop Dave Brown.
Harrelson’s Brown is an intelligent and intense individual. He lives alone in the guest house of his former wife so he can be close to his two daughters. Also residing in the main house is his other ex-girlfriend who is his ex-wife’s sister. The sisters are played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, and I’m still unclear which woman is the ex-wife and which is the ex-girlfriend, but it doesn’t really matter as it’s just an awkward situation that is never explained.
In any case, the two exes and Brown’s eldest daughter Helen (Larson) all declare Brown a piggish misogynist but, still, he finds himself housed nearby where the contempt can play out in full force. As a cop, Brown drives the mean streets of L.A. and smokes a ton of cigarettes. He’s also a fairly heaver boozer and pill-popper who still manages to score consistently with a bevy of nice looking women, including Linda (Wright Penn), who takes an animalistic shine to him even though she’s a successful woman who can clearly do better.
Brown is not only on the outs at home, he’s also skating on such thin ice at work he might as well be doing figure eights on the bottom of a frozen lake. The latest dose of ill will comes in the form of a citizen shot video showing Brown beating the living daylights out of a suspect in broad daylight. But Brown is so smart and savvy to his rights and the letter of the law, higher-ups are having a tough time running him off the squad.
While there’s plenty of fodder here for an intriguing story (albeit one that feels done more than a few times), Moverman chooses to take a rather passive, impressionistic point of view and, as such, I could never find myself involved enough to care what happened next. In many ways, “Rampart” is a quiet character study that suddenly breaks out in bombastic broad strokes before sinking back into its quieter, subdued form, and that too was off-putting.
To be blunt, I never really cared all that much about Dave Brown and, as a result, the film slowly drew away from me to a point where I didn’t really care what happened to him. Obviously with a creepy, angry lead character you’re always going to hold them at arm’s length but there still needs to be a way to access the character and get involved.
In a film like “Bad Lieutenant” (which this film seems to want to be at times), one can’t help but be drawn to Keitel’s character to come along for his trip down the hellish rabbit hole, wondering where he’ll go next and how bad it will be. In “Rampart” I never felt along for the ride but rather outside the window looking in. And while the story and direction didn’t engage me, I still found the performances very solid.
Harrelson embodies this skeezy yet multifaceted character and while I wouldn’t describe him as smoldering, there’s a certain slow burn that occurs. I also enjoyed Brie Larson’s Helen, who could have played her role like a pissed-off emo teen but Larson adds a weight and sadness to her character, which is at times heartbreaking. Also excellent is Ned Beatty as a shady man who sees Brown is malleable enough to pull off some nasty tricks.
Still, I found “Rampart” disappointing, especially after responding so strongly to “The Messenger” and the performances Moverman got from Harrelson and Foster in that film. That film had heart and gave depth to difficult characters dealing with difficult situations. “Rampart” takes a completely different look at a difficult character and for me the results are lacking.