If Robert Altman had made a cop drama, it might have looked and sounded like Rampart. Nearly every scene in Oren Moverman’s examination of LAPD officer Dave Brown’s (Woody Harrelson) fall from grace is captured via overlapping dialogue, slow zooms, and measured pacing. Not only does this incredibly loose aesthetic challenge the traditionally controlled and slick conventions of the cop genre, it adds a certain visceral haziness that compliments Brown’s own professional and personal immorality. Every move Dave makes, whether it’s picking up women at a bar or harassing criminals on the street, feels infected with a long-gestating rot that has slowed his world down to a crawl. Except Dave is so arrogantly immersed in this tainted perspective that he deludes himself into thinking there’s always another bureaucratic loophole he can escape through.
Shot in HD to maximize the visual flatness of its 1990s setting and cramped urban locations, Rampart envisions a neo-noir world completely defined by artificial layers and textures. Vibrant reds, oranges, blues litter the frame as Dave patrols the seediest corners of downtown Los Angeles, an area policed by the infamous Rampart division that, as a group, tries to wipe away allegations of misconduct and corruption. But if Dave’s cavalier attitude is any indication, the stink of freewheeling police work has been smeared on the department’s reputation for many years. More than anything, Moverman makes Rampart about Dave’s resistance to admitting his culpability within this culture, a character flaw that Harrelson manages to physically convey through aggressive body movements and facial expressions.
Co-written by Moverman and iconic crime novelist James Ellroy, Rampart reveals the many facets of Dave’s life, virtually every one of them hollowed out by compromise and arrogance. The typical “cop on the beat” moments are overshadowed by Dave’s strange personal life, everything from the unconventional housing situation he shares with his ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) to the self-destructive tryst he experiences with a district attorney (Robin Wright). Later, when Dave purposefully kills a suspect during a botched robbery, the incurring investigation by an Internal Affairs officer (Ice Cube) almost seems secondary to the extreme sense of predetermined tragedy permeating through each scene. The extent of Dave’s isolation is expressed when one colleague says, “You’ve dirtied us all up by default.” The irony comes in knowing that Dave’s actions, however damning, only represent a sliver of the corruption on display.
Aspects of the surreal eventually invade Rampart when Dave goes on a hallucinogenic bender late in the film. His insane experience inside a nightclub turns all sense of trusting perspective upside down through a barrage of jump cuts, strobe lights, and twisting camera shots that produces a sort of spasm in the narrative. Yet the entire sequence is another example of Dave descending into a fragile fantasy world created to ignore the blatant realities of his own failures and those of the institutions he represents. It’s as if Moverman wants to traverse through the dark and similarly drugged-out territory of Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant, if only for a flash, then return his lead character to the blinding sunlight of Southern California.
So is Rampart a chronicle of an individual tragedy or a collective one? While Moverman’s film progresses down some fascinatingly digressive storylines that indict both Dave’s personal Achilles’ heel and that of department heads and high-ranking politicians he works for, Rampart continuously defies expectations within a genre universe that usually celebrates them wholeheartedly. Specific moments where plot points are supposed to be hashed out feel incomplete, ambiguous to the point of incoherence, while the character-driven exchanges between Dave and the various women who hate him are fully realized, allowed the space to convey the character’s increasingly volatile bouts of emotional suffocation. In the end, Harrelson’s brilliantly masochistic turn is almost completely internalized, except in the final moments when Dave finally realizes he’s been paddling up shit’s creek all along. Whether he truly cares or not is a scary thought left to linger in the high beams of oncoming L.A. traffic.