Directed by Oren Moverman (The Messenger) from a script by Moverman and L.A. noir master James Ellroy, Rampart tracks the downward spiral of LAPD cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson). A Vietnam vet whose personal code allows for extreme bad behavior in the name of a hazily defined greater good, Brown describes his approach to patrol as “a military occupation, emergency law.” Asked by a rookie lady cop about the scandal that gives the movie its title—the action’s set in 1999, right around the time 70 Rampart Division cops were busted for misconduct—Brown replies that it’s “bullshit.” He also claims that the rat’s accusations have created a new problem, inducing “hopped-up, wannabe–Rodney King beaners” to goad cops into fucking up in the vicinity of cameras. “I am not a racist,” Brown says later. “The fact is, I hate all people, equally.”
Sure enough, soon Brown is at the center of his own scandal, when a surreptitiously shot video of him beating a suspect makes the nightly news. The dominoes fall from there: An effort to obtain cash for his legal costs leads to a second charge of suspicious force, which leads to Brown’s ejection from the home he shares with his two daughters and two ex-wives—who happen to be sisters.
Rampart is Moverman’s second consecutive collaboration with Harrelson, after The Messenger, which earned the actor an Oscar nomination. Here the director pulls off the formidable task of marrying two unwieldy performances: Harrelson’s, a volatile and vulnerable feat of showboating, and Ellroy’s, whose writing voice is unmistakably the voice of the movie.
From Brown’s ethical relativism to his casually repugnant racism, from his nihilism to his self-hatred, and his attempts at self-preservation through self-destruction, Rampart is perhaps best understood as a sustained riff on Ellroy’s pet concerns. Much like Ellroy’s noir classics The Black Dahlia and American Tabloid, Rampart is an imaginative work of historical crime fiction using invented characters to reanimate a specific time and place.
As a study of manhood in crisis, Rampart feels tied to Ellroy’s most recent book, The Hilliker Curse, a memoir-confession tracing the ways his relationships with women—from his obsession with the unsolved murder of his mother to his current romantic entanglements—have influenced all of his fiction. Likewise, women rule Brown’s world, cock-blocking him literally and figuratively, practically and psychologically. Brown’s every encounter with a female reinforces his paranoia that women want to deflate his manhood by sucking him dry. That paranoia is made literal through Brown’s relationship with Linda (Robin Wright), a lawyer who seduces him under false pretenses. “I like to suck cock,” she admits when the truth comes out. “So sue me.”
Although he’s working in a style of heightened naturalism that’s the antithesis of glossy Ellroy adaptations L.A. Confidential and The Black Dahlia, Moverman mimics the free-associative, discursive style of Ellroy’s writing with restless, cubistic editing. Every scene is seen from multiple angles, with Moverman toggling back and forth between medium shots and images captured from afar, as if via hidden camera, often through long zooms reminiscent of a 1970s cop flick.
This ping-pong cutting doesn’t suggest that Brown is being watched so much as it indicates that he thinks he’s being watched, and we’re watching what he thinks that looks like. When the camera zooms in on a Brown family dinner from the viewpoint outside the kitchen window, for instance, we’re not seeing the point of view of an actual person in the bushes, but that of what Brown imagines a voyeur in the bushes could see. We only view the world as he perceives it—which allows us to understand how he can justify even his worst behavior.
Increasingly, Brown’s perception is out of whack. In Rampart’s final act, a newly homeless Brown retreats to a hotel room with booze and pills, willfully surrendering what remains of his grip on reality as the outside world has become increasingly unfriendly to his manipulations. An encounter with his daughters moves him to make one last stab at redemption—which Ellroy and Moverman thankfully treat as the joke that it is. Together, they’ve created a fascinatingly elliptical, open-ended pulp fiction out of a character study so subjective it’s nearly psychedelic.