Rampart (2011) / US / Out on DVD now / Directed by Oren Moverman / Written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman / Starring Woody Harrelson, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Ice Cube, Brie Larson / 108 minutes
"Woody Harrelson is the most corrupt cop you've ever seen on screen" - the tagline which is plastered across the posters and the trailers for Rampart, Oren Moverman's follow-up to the marvellous 2009 film The Messenger. If a film makes such a bold claim, you can only be sure that it is doing that because it truly means it, right?
Unfortunately, that's not the case with Rampart. I haven't seen too many cop movies, so I wouldn't know how corrupt they can really go, but I'm sure that Rampart's Dave Brown (Harrelson) doesn't really reach the top of the coppo-corrupto-metre. That isn't because the character doesn't have a corrupt soul - because he sure does - it is just that the film never really decides if it wants to show that corruption. In fact, the film never really decides on what it wants to show us at all. What we have instead is a disappointingly incomplete screenplay, which seems like it is more happy contributing ideas to a story instead of building it. Through that, we have multiple characters coming in and out, contributing to dynamics that are never sustained. Those characters happen to be played beautifully by a range of actors who contribute to probably one of the best ensemble acting performances of the past year, and at least make sure that this isn't just one long acting exercise for Harrelson. In the end, Rampart has a lot to contribute, but not a lot of getting up and doing things for itself.
The film revolves around Dave Brown, who in the midst of the infamous Rampart scandal in the 1990s is caught beating someone almost to death. He also lives with his two ex-wives, who happen to be sisters, and who he also happens to have kids with. All while he's living there, he starts an affair with Linda Fentress (Robin Wright). There's a whole lot of stuff happening, including how we're shown just how inhumane the guy is through his racist, misogynistic, homophobic remarks. Some films like to have you put together the pieces of the puzzle in order to form a picture of a character and the world he lives in, but Rampart has half of the pieces missing. We know that Brown is horrible to everyone, and we see flashes of him looking to seek redemption for his wild ways. That doesn't come into the film until it is just about ready to close out, and when it gets to its closing minutes, you can just feel that screenwriters James Ellroy and Oren Moverman suddenly ran out of time and paper. Sure, they probably just wanted an ambiguous ending. Has Brown changed? Or is he still the same man? Questions in which the audience should be asking themselves, but it is clouded by all of the confusion of what is trying to be achieved. Perhaps if it were staged a bit better, or if the material preceding it could offer us enough information about whether Brown has the capacity to change or not, Rampart would leave a lasting memory. Alas, there's just not a lot to really think about when you're given practically nothing in the first place.
Though Rampart is an incomplete mess of a film, it has some good performances going for it. Especially Harrelson's, which is definitely one of the best of the past year. He seems to rise above the material he is given and create a terrifying portrait of a man who has been given all of the flaws that could ever be handed out to a human being, oddly adding some charisma to his tough character. It is a tough deal to have such an unlikable character leading a film, but where the script falters in trying to make it watchable, Harrelson just about makes up for it. I'm not entirely sure of where he stands in the possibility of an Oscar nomination this season, but if he's eligible, it certainly wouldn't be out of the question.While his performance seems to tower over anything else this movie has going for it, within the huge ensemble, there are some great performances. The stand-outs are Ben Foster, reunited with his The Messenger co-star Harrelson and director Moverman to play "General" Terry, a homeless war vet. He is physically transformed in this role, and even though he has very little screen time. One of the more underrated performers in the film is Brie Larson, who is perhaps best known for being Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or Molly in 21 Jump Street, contrasts those comedic performances with her dramatic turn as Brown's wayward daughter Helen. Her role doesn't branch too far away the stereotypical troubled teen, but Larson fulfils the role with vigour, which is especially evident when she tells Brown what he really is. And that's a welcome moment.
I've seen Rampart twice now - the first time was admittedly hard to watch since the preview disc was out of sync which made me lose interest in the film so much so that I looked up and it was over. The second time confirmed my suspicions...Rampart is a frustratingly bad movie, in the way that you can see near greatness, but the film never really wants to build on that. Which is bitterly disappointing, considering how much I loved The Messenger and hoped that a Moverman/Harrelson/Foster reunion would be just as fantastic.
What I got: