By David Karikomi, Muse Staff Writer
Oren Moverman’s sophomore directorial feature, Rampart, does little to separate itself from its contemporaries in the cop-noir genre—it’s gritty, overpowering and dangerously voyeuristic—nevertheless, its shadowy and serpentine narrative is enough to garner intrigue.
The story follows Dave Brown, a rogue police officer working for the notorious Rampart division in LA. Played marvelously by Woody Harrelson, Dave perfectly embodies the chaotic atmosphere of the division’s corrupt activity during the ‘90s. After a Hispanic man drives into Brown’s police cruise, perhaps intentionally, and attempts to escape the scene, Dave nearly beats the man to death. The ensuing drama between Dave and the division is only a fraction of the uncovering of Brown’s disturbing and complicated personal life.
Dave may describe himself as one of the last ‘soldiers’ working for the LAPD—also an allusion to his service in Vietnam—but he is very much a maverick and a cowboy. He is egotistical, undeniably narcissistic, but oddly charming enough to get what he wants. He has two daughters from two different women who happen to be sisters, and all five of them live under one roof. The film’s troubling family dimension and its inevitable conflicts are just one of many peculiarities that make Rampart the entertaining, if not uncomfortable film that it strives to be.
It is rare when Harrelson is given a leading role in a feature, though he tends to outshine his more distinguished peers, such as the case in Friends with Benefits and Zombieland. The power and finesse that Rampart desires for are contingent largely on Harrelson’s sensibility to the material—and he delivers. His performance carries the film, particularly given that every scene and almost every shot invites his enigmatic presence. He is callously humorous and direct, but manages to shelter enough of the mystery that makes his character so intriguing.
The film captures southern California in a manner that is aesthetically unfamiliar to many outside of the area, where sun-kissed beaches are replaced by depictions of the gruesome, smog-infested inner city. The cinematography’s surreal but strangely accurate color scheme should come as no surprise, with Moverman compiling a production staff that would rival larger Hollywood films. The production designer David Wasco, worked on Inglorious Basterds, Pulp Fiction and The Royal Tenenbaums, and editor Jay Rabinowitz, was involved in Requiem of a Dream and The Tree of Life.
Moverman also co-wrote the script with prominent crime fiction writer James Ellroy, who is perhaps best known for L.A. Confidential. However, I found the dialogue to be one of the weaker points of the film. Many of the film’s pivotal scenes focus on the intimate discussions between Harrelson and his many acquaintances, but too often the diction did little to match the skillful display of emotion and perspective from the actors. However, the narrative was delivered in a smooth and coherent manner, a difficult task given the plot’s edgy and sophisticated nature.
One of Harrelson’s final lines—“I didn’t do anything wrong”—is indicative of both Brown’s naiveté and the overall quality of the film. Rampart may not have the wit and dexterity to label it the next Pulp Fiction, but its delightful cinematography and Harrelson’s brilliant performance should be enough to give it chance.