“Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit.” That’s the sage bit of wisdom Date Rape Dave (Woody Harrelson, and we’ll get to his cop moniker in a moment) gives a new trainee in the opening frames of Oren Moverman‘s “Rampart,” a searing and riveting look at a crooked cop’s decay amidst the crumbling LAPD at the turn of the millennium.
The year is 1999 and Rampart Division of the LAPD is under serious fire. The world “corrupt” doesn’t even begin to describe the charges being laid against officers in the division that are accused of having ties to gangs, drugs, robbery and murder. Dave Brown may not be based on a real cop but he’s Moverman’s surrogate for everything endemic in the department and his unfortunate nickname is a reference to an incident early in his career in which a serial date rapist wound up dead at his hands. Any serious charges were dismissed, but the stigma of the case weighs on him like an albatross around his neck, but two decades into his career, that event seems completely innocent compared to what he’s mixed in with now.
The opening fifteen or twenty minutes of the film that are weakest, with Moverman (somewhat inelegantly), establishing the scope of this story, shifting somewhat abruptly from the aforementioned sequence with a rookie cop to spending considerable time with his interestingly structured family. Brown has two daughters from two different wives — who also happen to be sisters. In case it isn’t clear, among his many “talents,” the officer is a great womanizer and Harrelson imbues him with a stealthy sexuality. He’s not above flirting and then directly asking a woman if she wants to share his bed that evening. But just when “Rampart” threatens to become a domestic drama, the picture really takes off.
Casually driving his police car through a local barrio, Dave is randomly side-swiped by a car. When he gets out to investigate, the driver of the car attempts to knock Dave over with his driver’s side door and then makes a run for it. A chase ensues on foot and once Dave finally catches up with driver — who happens to be Latino — he unleashes a brutal beating on him with his club, one that is unfortunately captured on video. And within 24 hours, the tape is seemingly on a loop on every cable channel with Dave becoming the latest black eye for the LAPD whose prestige — what little of it there is left — is eroding day by day. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in a series of events that will find Harrelson’s cop-character slowly painting himself into a corner as the lies and deceptions employed to keep his dirty name in the clear for so long begin to catch up with him.
Stretching from the street level observations of the homeless, through the barrios, to the internecine politics of the power corridors in city hall, Moverman’s film is really two portraits: one of the grimy Los Angeles that we don’t see very often in the usual steel-and-glass depictions, and another of a cop slowly losing his sanity as he tries to keep a balance between a complicated home life and a career that is unraveling before his eyes. But don’t get it twisted, this is not your usual “Training Day” -style portrayal of a cop descending to into paranoia and madness (or a David Ayer cop-pic). As writer and director, Moverman isn’t just concerned with the singular breakdown of a character but the ramifications that spread out like an oil slick to engulf his family and his colleagues, all pitched against a real-life backdrop. It’s a wildly ambitious slow burn that succeeds immensely, powered by one of the best performances of Woody Harrelson’s career. It’s a turn that finds him making great choices time and again, often choosing to underplay rather than overreach, making his fractured Date Rape Dave both repulsive and sympathetic.
As Dave hustles to get out from under the scandal that has embroiled his department and his life, he bounces off an array of intriguing characters. Most of these are small roles, but it speaks to just how good Moverman’s script is that he gets to fill them with some great talent. Sigourney Weaver as his LAPD attorney; Steve Buscemi as the mayor; Ice Cube as an internal affairs investigator and Moverman’s “The Messenger” co-star Ben Foster as a homeless drunk, all shine in their brief appearances, and their presence only helps to embolden the film’s narrative texture. The continually underrated Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon are excellent in larger turns as Dave’s wives in addition to Ned Beatty, the struggling cop’s direct connection to the much slimier underbelly of the police department. As Dave ricochets between a family that is finally seeing him for who he really is and the LAPD who want take away the only job he’s ever been good at, Moverman’s artistry isn’t just found in the rich world he populates, but also in how he chooses to shoot it.
Though the film is gritty, Moverman still demands a degree of accomplishment in the shooting style, not just content with lazily going the hand-held route. The film finds the director beautifully lensing even the most seemingly innocuous of scenes. Among the highlights is a wickedly quasi-360 camera scene in the mayor’s office, the camera slowly sweeping between Harrelson, Weaver and Buscemi during an increasingly contentious argument. Another is a great sequence in the second half of the film in which Dave, nearing rock bottom, wastes a night away at an underground industrial club, where, once again, Moverman side-swipes a conventional approach and delivers something we’d expect from someone like Gaspar Noé. Introduced with alternating screens of white noise (which for a moment made us think there was a problem with the screen) and a black screen, we’re pitched into a red-bathed pulsating club that is not an escape for Dave, but a mirror to his state of mind. Moverman is careful not to glamorize Dave — as each minute of the film rolls by he becomes increasingly difficult — and from characters, to locations, to even how shots are framed, everything is admirably considered and executed with care and attention to detail, to make sure the message never strays off-point.
“I’m not a racist, I hate all people equally.” That’s how Dave explains his actions late in the film but what we realize is that he also hates himself, and it’s that self-loathing that is perhaps the most dangerous weapon he has at his disposal. “Rampart” is not a criticism of the LAPD or officers in general but is something far more fascinating. It’s an exploration of corruption taking root and completely overpowering an individual beyond all recognition to anyone in his life. It’s a harrowing journey, and while everyone around him may have given up on him, as we spy Date Rape Dave in the final moments of the film contemplating his own death, a small ray of light appears, one that may give him a reason to live. And it’s this moment, a brave choice by Movernman, that elevates “Rampart” from being a very good movie into a great film. [A-]