If we can take away one thing from history it’s that it often repeats itself. The Kent State massacre in 1970 was one of the first instances where the media shined a light on the corruption of police enforcement. Since then we’ve seen a pattern of brutality and negligence in the form of the beating of Rodney King and subsequent LA riots, and the recent Occupy Wall Street movement creating another magnifying glass on the abuse of power. Sites like YouTube have made incidents like the UC Davis pepper spraying more viral than ever.
Director Oren Moverman (The Messenger) puts a polarizing view on the subject by revealing the typical personality of a fully-flawed blue blood in the LA noir crime drama Rampart. Taken straight from the newspapers of the LA rampart scandal of the 90s, it’s a film that pulls you back into the Clinton era, specifically 1999, and puts you in the passenger seat of the patrol car with a militant, homophobic, chauvinistic cop who revels in authority and manipulates the rules to his own advantage to entertain his paranoia of the world.
Within the first five minutes of the film you know exactly who Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is. He patrols the streets without caution, makes water cooler talk out of harassing a female colleague into finishing her medium fries, and goes by the moniker of “Date Rape,” which you later learn is due to Brown killing an innocent premeditated date rapist on a hunch. While interrogating a man arrested for cooking crank, he savagely beats the crap out of him for an address, and everyone turns a blind eye as if this has happened before; as you continue to watch you realize it probably has. His family life is nothing to envy. He’s merely someone who exists on the couch of his former lovers, who are also sisters (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) both of whom he produced a daughter with, and both whom he once married, but not in the “Sister Wives” way, just in a really complicated, nuclear family way. You also learn over dinner that Brown doesn’t pay his taxes either, but that’s the least of his worries.
Moverman takes the quiet reflective moments in Brown’s patrolling and uses the space in a scene to work to his advantage, cutting one of the rides in the car short as Brown is unexpectedly hit. In an instant the action of the film has arrived, and Brown’s switch is cranked way up as he races after the driver who tries to flee the scene and beats him from an inch of his life. Of course this act of brutality is caught on tape and he’s charged with misconduct in a civil lawsuit, one that he wants to represent himself in over confessing to his crimes or even worse, retiring early, which is an option he nearly spews over when the LAPD lawyer Joan Cronfrey (Sigourney Weaver) puts it on the table. He fights in opposition of Cronfrey with every verbose bone in his body; you find out that, while he may be a hard ass, he’s a hard ass with a penchant for legal talk and the ability to weave his own flaws to his advantage. Still, he claims the tapes didn’t get everything and the LAPD has set him up in order to take the light off of the department, even citing, “A lot of cops would have shot him and got a medal.”
Brown, although seriously flawed, seems as though he has all of his morals and ideologies put together, but all of that spirals down when he meets a charming woman in Linda (Robin Wright), a defense attorney. Midway through the film they start a love affair in a hotel room he rents across from the bar (after being kicked out of his house), with brilliant moments of banter between the two. The twisted nature of their relationship heightens and his veneer cracks when he breaks into her home, convinced that she’s working against him even though he’s made her say over and over again that she isn’t. The aimless fingering by Brown leads him on an even deeper spiral with his family, a calling-out by his ex wife (Anne Heche) on his neglect as a father, and a club-filled drugged night of orgies, which for the most part seems out of the context of the film’s narrative but not unlikely for Brown’s story.
Woody Harrelson has never been as believable as he is under Moverman’s direction (the two also teamed up back in 2009 for The Messenger). Harrelson takes the popular figure in American culture that we often either herald as God or love to hate, and flips it on its head. It’s easy to stereotype an antagonistic cop, but Harrelson’s likeability opens the spectrum for a double-edged sword paralleling two tales that converge to make up one persona. Harrelson makes Brown a man you root for not on his failures, but on his potential, because throughout the film it always seems to be just in his reach before he spirals again. He’s as gritty as he is charming, delusional as he is smart, and stubborn as he is vulnerable. Brown is a man who’s failing to connect with his daughters, particularly his oldest Helen (Brie Larson) who practically shudders at the sight of him, but in the same turn spouts to a homeless man (Ben Foster) that he has no family. Throughout the film he makes no apologies for setting up a hotel room to screw countless charming women, then ending the night by masking his face with a pillow. He’s a man that won’t play by society’s rules; as a result, he’s unable to connect with anyone. The issues between Helen and Brown are palpable but go unspoken, mostly because nothing has to be said; the reasons are evident just by following his behavior.
In the last ten minutes he’s confronted by his daughters in the hotel room that he now calls his home. He wants them to stay, to entertain, to relive half-assed memories of the brief time he spent with them, but it’s too late. They’ve only come to drop his clothes off. Finally, you see Brown at his strongest morality–though drunk–as he reveals, “You want me to give you a way out so it doesn’t hurt so much; well there’s no way out. Everything you’ve heard: it’s all true. I can never change. But I want you to know I never hurt any good people.” His eldest, Helen, heartbreakingly points out the obvious: that he’s hurt the only people who ever wanted to know him–his daughters. They leave, and with this realization he contemplates suicide. Just when you get a flicker of his potential to change and become the hero he regales in, it’s just as quickly ripped away. The point is that Brown can’t change, or he’s created too much damage, or has burned too many bridges. He’s caught between his destiny and the man he could have been destined to be.
Like the division itself, Rampart isn’t a film without its flaws. Although the noir sub crime genre is all the rage now, Harrelson is at his most powerful when he’s allowed to let the thoughts of his character explode in moments of rage–and the film is better for it. For example, when he confronts an old friend from his father’s division and threatens him so ruthlessly the man goes into cardiac arrest. In juxtaposition, it makes the space and quiet moments of Brown’s drives so glaringly obvious and doubles its time in actual length. Moreover it just gives the option for the audience to stir and create opinions about a character who seems on the outside to be very one-note.
Although there are many layers to Harrelson’s performance, one can argue that we’ve seen this renegade blue blood in the form of many prolific actors before Harrelson — Gary Oldman in Leon: The Professional, Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, and the two actors who practically invented the cop crime genre: De Niro and Pacino in Righteous Kill. It’s nothing you haven’t seen or even heard before in its genre; but Harrelson, a man who’s more well known for his pot-loving hippie ways, reinvents himself as a new actor, and that’s a story at least worth looking into.