Throughout my movie watching career, there have been collaborations between certain actors and film makers that work so well it should be illegal. For the sake of this review, the collaboration is between writer/director Oren Moverman and his go to actor Woody Harrelson. In 2010, Harrelson was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Moverman’s heart wrenching drama, The Messenger. The two were then reunited 2012, along with co-writer James Ellroy (best known for L.A. Confidential), with Rampart. The performances and overall story in this film are really something to behold, but the overcrowding of subplots and an over the top artsy fartsy style almost ruined the movie for me.
The year is 1999 and Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a police officer in the Rampart Division of the LAPD. Unfortunately for the people of Los Angeles, Brown is a racist, homophobic, and generally intolerant bigot who will resort to violence whenever he wants to to get the information he wants. After he is caught almost beating a suspect to death on tape, Officer Dave Brown’s life soon starts spiraling out of control. His ex-wives who are also sisters (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) want nothing more to do with him while Assistant District Attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) starts pushing him towards an early retirement. As if that wasn’t enough, Brown becomes embroiled in an affair with an attorney working against him named Linda (Robin Wright) but also gets into more trouble after getting bad advice from his mentor, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), which ends in a brutal murder.
I think the main reason to see Rampart is to see all of the amazing talent at work. Harrelson gives what may be the best performance of the year. It probably even beats his work on True Detective, especially since there is so much more corruption and hostility flowing through his character’s veins. A lot of the other actors I feel get under utilized though. For example, Steve Buscemi is only in one scene and I wanted to see him a lot more. Ice Cube also only shows up towards the end even though his character had a lot of great potential. After Harrelson, I think the next performance you really have to pay attention to is Ben Foster’s. Foster is one of Hollywood’s most underrated actors and his small role in Rampart and his leading role in The Messenger proves he’s capable of a lot more than he is given.
James Ellroy is a master at writing in the crime genre. He has written plenty of murder mysteries and dramas while also penning screenplays and having involvement in documentaries. That being said, both Ellroy and Moverman went a little overboard in Rampart. The story of a corrupt cop finally facing his demons and getting what he has coming to him is great, and they show his breakdown wonderfully. The problem is that there is way too much crammed into this movie. It’s like they tried to take everything from a long novel and stuff it into a movie that’s less than two hours. Characters are underused, plot lines are unresolved, and some of the development feels either forced or nonexistent. Luckily, the crux of the story is there and really good. This is more of a character study of Dave Brown and Ellroy and Moverman hit the nail on the head when it came to that area of the screenplay.
Another major complain that I have with Rampart is that Moverman and cinematographer Bobby Bukowski went a little overboard with the art design. There’s a motif throughout the film that Dave Brown slowly begins disappearing. The start of the movie has him at the forefront of the action going on onscreen and while the movie goes on, he becomes framed behind objects and obscured. That’s an example of great artistic design. On the flip side, there’s a scene where the camera keeps cutting and spinning during a meeting and it’s not only unnecessary, but looks stupid. I get what they were trying to do, but it just didn’t work and only succeeded at annoying me. If Moverman and Bukowsky just toned it down a little bit, the film would have been all the better for it.
I almost loved Rampart and at the same time I almost hated it. I really don’t know how else to explain how I feel about this movie. On one hand it tells a really complex story about a man who refuses to change who he is and has to suffer for it, and on the other hand it’s an overstuffed movie that seemed to be going nowhere at parts. I feel equal on these two sentiments, so Rampart really just left me baffled. I wanna say give it a watch, but I can’t see anyone really coming out of it without a lot of questions that need answering.