Sunday, June 03, 2012

Rampart

RAMPART (Oren Moverman, 2011)

With the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart Division already mired in scandal, the actions of 24-year veteran officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) add more black marks on a station noted for its corruption.  Set in 1999, approximately a year after a real-life investigative task force was formed to scrutinize the division, RAMPART follows Dave as he abuses his power and refuses to adapt to changing times.

Twelve years earlier he was suspected of killing an alleged serial date rapist.  While no charges against him stuck, the nickname Date Rape Dave did.  He employs highly questionable but effective methods to fight crime and doesn’t believe his behavior leaves anything to apologize for.  

One day while on patrol a civilian driver plows into Dave’s car.  The offender flees when Dave confronts him.  Dave chases him down and delivers an excessive beating that a bystander catches on tape.  Ever so quick to mount a defense, Dave claims he was responding to being assaulted with a deadly weapon.  Whether he or anyone of his superiors really believes this justification is likely irrelevant.  Dave will continue to operate as usual until he no longer carries a badge.  With pressure increasing on the LAPD to get rogue cops under control, that time may arrive sooner than he thinks.
Director/co-writer Oren Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy examine the corrupt law enforcement culture by occupying the headspace of a damaged officer on a downward spiral.  Although the character study doesn’t leave Dave’s side, the narrative style is rarely direct.  Instead, like police work, RAMPART requires paying attention to details and inferring the scale of the division’s scandal and Dave’s rocky personal life from careful viewing and honing in on stray dialogue tidbits.  The oblique storytelling technique rewards with the economical way it fills in the background without piling on excessive backstory or psychological portraiture, but it can confuse by needlessly obscuring relevant information.

While Moverman wishes to keep character and plot specifics inconspicuous, he tends to use the camera in a distracting manner.  Showy motion, like a 360-degree revolving camera during a meeting with district attorney Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi), and unconventional angles reveal a director trying too hard.  Since Dave believes the department has set up and targeted him to remove focus from their problems, Moverman wants to convey paranoia and uncertainty through his framings and movements.  More often than not he attracts undue awareness of what the camera is doing.

Ultimately RAMPART is Harrelson’s showcase, and he takes full advantage of fleshing out a complex role.  Harrelson shows Dave as being good at his job, in large part because of his misanthropy and cleverness.  He wears disdain and smarts like other weapons on his belt, which gives him an unpredictable nature that intimidates colleagues and criminals alike. Those qualities are just as likely to get him in trouble, especially when he’s off duty.  He interrogates eldest daughter Helen (Brie Larson) about a confrontational art project and thus puts more of a chill in an already cool relationship.  In good cop mode he propositions his ex-wives, sisters Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Catherine (Anne Heche), but lacks sincerity.  Fueled by cigarettes, pills, and booze--others regularly remark about how he never eats--Dave is an instant gratification machine unaware of increasing malfunctions.  Harrelson plays him not as a monster but a self-destructive relic.  Either way, the damage is done.

Grade: B-

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