Cop out – Rampart review (Sydney Film Festival)

RampartStarring Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, and Brie Larson. Directed by Oren Moverman. By Simon Miraudo.

Rampart plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 9 and 17th.

The poster for Oren Moverman‘s sophomore effort Rampart declares proudly that its central character is “the most corrupt cop you’ve ever seen on screen.” Setting aside the fact that Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) – though despicable – could never compete with Harvey Keitel or Nicolas Cage‘s unhinged Bad Lieutenants in the dirty detective game, you have to respect the bravado required to make such an audacious, self-conscious statement. Were the contents as daring as the container, Rampart might have been something special.

Moverman’s follow-up to the delicate and devastating The Messenger is mostly comprised of big, brash statements like the aforementioned tagline, but it rarely follows through on any promises made. “I’m not a racist, I hate all people equally,” is the kind of supposedly witty, incisive line spat out by our protagonist that challenges us to hate him despite his innate charisma. Screenwriters Moverman and James Ellroy have littered their script with similar bumper sticker slogans. And when they’re not writing such blatant, on-the-nose dialogue, they’re frustratingly evasive; almost taunting the audience for having any opinion of their subject.

Brown is a Vietnam vet with a bad rep. Being one of Los Angeles’ most morality-deprived cops once worked in his department’s favour, but with the LAPD suddenly scrutinised by an anti-corruption unit, he’s become their biggest liability. After a routine beating of a black man hits the news channels, Brown is made a scapegoat for all that is evil in the state of LA. Then again, can one be made a scapegoat when they are indeed guilty of the crimes?

Desperately in need of cash to defend himself in court, he’s tipped off to a high-stakes card game by an even dodgier officer (Ned Beatty). Intending to alleviate the players of the burden of their winnings, Brown – surprise surprise – winds up in a shootout and wades into further controversy.  The film is set during the real-life Rampart scandal and investigation of the 1990s, but that knowledge doesn’t necessarily enhance one’s viewing. The only setting that matters is the inside of Brown’s mind, where he gradually descends into the abyss of isolation.

Rampart asks a lot of its audience, and offers very little in return. Only Harrelson – who scored an Oscar nomination for his work in The Messenger – makes the ordeal worthwhile. His character is a hedonistic wolf; so bewildered by the premise that he is constrained from doing what he wants, he literally spirals out of control and becomes even more dangerous than before. He’s the kind of guy who marries and divorces two sisters (Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon), then has the gall to continue living with them and court them for sex in front of one another. Late in the piece, he wanders into a dance club that could literally be a substitute for hell, where he gorges on drugs, food, and women in this strobing sex dungeon. Harrelson commits to the requirements of the role, but never takes his character – despite the occasionally cringe-worthy dialogue – into the realm of outrageousness. Supporting turns from Brie Larson (as Brown’s daughter), Robin Wright (as an equally ethically-dubious lawyer), and Ben Foster (a paralysed witness to a crime) are impressive and welcome, but their appearances are so fleeting they barely have time to leave an impression.

Moverman and his DOP Bobby Bukowski swirl the camera furiously; at times intentionally obfuscating the cast, and at other times shooting through the prism of a kaleidoscope. The final act, if you can call it that, sputters to such an anti-climactic end that it must be poetic, right? Disorienting cinematography and ambiguous finales can indeed be powerful filmmaking tools, but they’re not interesting in and of themselves.  Brown’s search for redemption, or forgiveness, or acceptance, or even punishment for his most heinous acts and characteristics by the city that nourished them, is never satisfactorily concluded.  The core of Rampart may not be as rotten as Dave Brown, but it’s certainly got a few bullet holes in it that really could have used filling.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Rampart plays the Sydney Film Festival on June 9 and 17th.

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