There are a million and one great movies out there that I could recommend to people in a heartbeat: but how could anybody recommend a great movie like Rampart without coming across as a cinematic sadist? This is a prime example of an entertaining grey area; in no way is this going to be a pleasant experience for your average viewer, but an appreciation for bold character study makes it an essential watch. The protagonist is a terrible human being with next-to-zero redeemable qualities. Furthermore, the majority of the supporting characters are corrupt in their own right. As far as the film goes: it’s slowly paced and lacks a comfortable narrative. It’s an unrelenting depiction of a terrible human being, in a terrible world, doing reprehensible things as those around him conspire against him. It’s very bleak to say the least, but if you can make it to the end you unlock an achievement in cinematic accomplishments.
Woody Harrelson plays Officer David Douglas Brown, the last remaining cop from the infamous L.A.P.D Rampart scandal of 1990. The year is now 1999, and Dave is living with his two ex-wives who just happen to be sisters; he has a daughter with each of the woman too, and he engages in sexy time with each of them regularly, as well as other women. On top of being a womaniser; he’s also a racist, a misogynist, a heavy drinker and guilty of using excessive brute force. His career has been on a downward spiral after the murder of a suspected serial date rapist; but after getting caught on camera beating up a man he got into a minor car accident with, he must use his cunning and survival instincts to save his job in the wake of a media scandal.
Woody Harrelson gives his career best performance here. It isn’t his best movie by any means, but as a portrayal of a character he’s never been better. To be able to play a character this innately cruel, sadistic, cold and broken requires a special kind of talent, and Harrelson isn’t afraid to dig deep into the darkest recesses of his humanity and leave it all on-screen. His character swaggers with brute grandeur and lives without fear of consequences until he finds himself knee deep in it. However, he isn’t prepared to go down without a fight.
The Milgram experiment on obedience to authority figures is an infamous psychological study which found that those playing the roles of authoritarians felt justified to administer cruelty on those supposed to obey; the Los Angeles Police Department’s history of violence has only corroborated this theory throughout the years. In Rampart, Officer Brown is a critical representation of the police brutality that’s made the headlines for years; in particular, from an era when it was rife.
Rampart doesn’t follow a safe narrative structure of cause, revelation and resolution: it’s a character study of a bad person going through the motions of his dysfunctional lifestyle and deservedly unfortunate situation. The viewer is forced to endure his fractured relationships of people’s lives he’s ruined, as well his his own mental unravelling. It all ends on a note most people will find infuriatingly unsatisfying – and that’s what makes it great.
What Rampart lacks in story it more than makes up for in characterisation – and that’s the whole point. Despite a strong supporting cast consisting of greats like Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi and Ice Cube, it’s Harrelson who carries the bulk of it on his own, and although this movie has proven to be critically polarising, his performance is unquestionably masterful.
Rampart is a movie that demands patience, perseverance and an appreciation for films that set out to punish their audience. As unappealing as that sounds, it’s actually a drama that’s well worth a watch if you don’t mind the misery. The appreciation of Woody’s performance alone is reason enough to watch it, as he proves yet again that he’s one of the finest character actors working today.
James Ellroy, Oren Moverman
Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube, Ben Foster