Geoff Pevere: Bad Cops Get a Woody

Woody Harrelson appears in just about every single scene of Oren Moverman’s Rampart, but he’s almost always alone. Sometimes it’s because the camera suspends him that way – picking him out from crowds, putting him at a distance from other characters, or catching him sitting on the lonely side of a table – but increasingly it’s because nobody will have anything to do with him. Harrelson’s playing a cop named Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown – the nickname refers to his legendary but alleged murder of a serial sex offender — and this is the story of how he comes to find himself without a soul in the world…His own or anyone else’s.

The irony is that he’s not alone at all. As a bad cop facing the reckoning, Dave is part of a long if hardly proud tradition, and Harrelson’s doing it proud: it may be the finest and most complex performance of his career, and it sits very nicely alongside some of the most memorable bad cop turns that have preceded it: Robert Ryan in On Dangerous Ground, Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Gene Hackman in The French Connection, Nick Nolte in Q&A, Richard Gere in Internal Affairs, Ray Liotta in Narc and – the greasy bar-setter of these movies – Harvey Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant.

While that performance is likely to be the most oft-evoked comparison to Harrelson’s – especially because of Dave’s freewheeling abuse of suspects and substances alike – Rampart is actually a closer-to-the-bone affair, especially if the bone is something like reality. Set in Los Angeles in 1999, just as the Rampart Division of the LAPD – which is Dave’s home base – was undergoing a series of Department-rattling scandals concerning corruption, racism and unnecessary violence, Moverman’s movie eschews all of its predecessor’s agonized Catholic guilt in favour of a simple examination of a guy who realizes the world won’t put up with his shit any more. An unreconstructed racist, sexist, brute and lone-wolf vigilante when required, Dave is also an increasingly embarrassing and irredeemable anachronism. As he’s told many times, his code of righteous individualism isn’t just hurting the individual any more, it’s making everybody look bad.

The primary violence in Moverman’s movie is internal: it’s in the rage you can see popping the veins in Harrelson’s temples, in the fiery way he looks at interrogators and superiors, in the pills and booze he pounds down before passing out in the hotel room he’s compelled to live in once both his ex-wives (who also happen, in a fascinating gesture of Dave’s old-school lord-of-the-manor machismo, sisters) have kicked his ass out. But there’s always a potential for something nastier, and one of the movie’s main visceral triumphs is that it keeps you on the knife edge of such possibility.

It’s possible because once the movie has established that Dave is the kind of guy who will do anything if he feels justified in doing it, it then pushes the character inch by inch further out the ledge of his limits. Initially cocky and even brazenly provocative, things begin to change once Dave is captured – a la Rodney King, on videotape – brutally beating the black driver of a car who rammed his black-and-white. At first it’s just the media, politicians and bleeding hearts lined up against him, but then he begins to feel the screw turn with his department, colleagues, family and few friends. As we can see when he blithely rattles off legal precedent to his antagonists, Dave is a guy who has enjoyed an entire career based on imperiousness and entitlement, but the world he was once on top of has just rolled over on him. I expect there will be some viewers who will be annoyed the movie’s focus on Dave to the exclusion of the larger controversies besetting his department. But I think that misses the point: Dave is himself a symbol of how the department had failed to evolve with the times, and the shifting chorus of his opponents – none of whom are depicted as wrong, by the way – represent the forces that finally held the Rampart division’s collective feet to the fire: women, minorities, reformists, victims. One of the more subtly articulated aspects of Harrelson’s performance is the look of increasing powerless and desperation that creeps across his face as he realizes that none of the subjects he once lorded over are taking it any more. He can’t scare anyone, and that scares the bejesus out of him.

Co-scripted by Moverman and the great L.A. crime novelist James Ellroy, Rampart is highly unlikely to bust any blocks any time soon: it’s too deliberately uneventful, purposefully unresolved and unapologetically enigmatic. But I expect it will come to be highly and avidly admired by those who still hold to the belief that movies don’t have to be about nice people to be good. God forbid they ever pass that law.

Geoff Pevere’s column appears every Friday.

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Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and popular culture for over thirty years. He can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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