One of the most stylistically uncompromising American dramas of recent years, Rampart is a film preordained for cult status. Like some of the most distinctive American New Wave films of the 1970s, from Robert Altman to Arthur Penn, Oren Moverman’s second feature is less concerned with plot than mood, and more focused on capturing the mindset of a character than feeding easy resolutions to its audience. Likely to exhilarate and enrage in equal measure, it will appeal to those that like their cinema a little crooked, and will ultimately get more plaudits – though no Oscar, it seems – for Woody Harrelson’s performance than for its distinctive take on the crime genre.
Offering one of the most convincing onscreen sociopaths in recent memory, Harrelson plays ‘Date Rape’ Dave Brown, a foot soldier for the scandal-hit L.A.P.D. of the late ‘90s. Having created a worldview to justify everything from the violent abuse of suspects to his keeping of two ex-wives in adjacent homes, his rhythm of drinking, womanising and avoiding responsibility is interrupted when he is filmed brutally beating a suspect. Suddenly sucked into the role of a poster boy for all that is wrong with his department, he finds his various misdemeanours, both personal and legal, coming back to bite him.
Besides Harrelson’s performance, Rampart is most striking for the way it continually sidesteps genre conventions. With any number of difficulties potentially set to bring Brown to heel, Moverman instead has his character use his sharp mind to bat away the attentions of Attorney General Sigourney Weaver, pursue an abusive relationship with damaged lawyer Robin Wright, and commit murder in an attempt to hijack a robbery. Even whilst being drawn deeper into the mire, the conflicts Brown creates for himself remain unresolved, offering a snapshot of the whirlwind within which he exists rather than building towards the traditional thriller payoff.
Shot digitally, Rampart imagines Los Angeles as a flat, hazy panorama. The perfect environment for a character seemingly living within a dream, the air of unreality around Brown’s world is emphasised as his mental state continues to spiral, with particularly woozy scenes including a 360 degree pan around a conference room and an off-the-wall sequence in an underground nightclub. Rampart’s eccentricities will offend those committed to a straighter, chillier style, but its stylistic looseness only serves to underline Brown’s utter disconnect from reality.
Re-teaming with the leading man from his impressive debut The Messenger, Moverman has used a script from that master of moral obfuscation, James Ellroy, to create something distinctive and uncompromising, and Harrelson is simply a revelation. Playing Brown as gaunt, manic and utterly paranoid, his character is utterly unknowable yet completely reali sed. For those unwilling to ride alongside its antihero, Rampart may seem like a frustrating dead end. Those that are will be taken on a lingering journey into fantasy land.