Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Oren Moverman's RAMPART: grueling, edifying character study of a dirty cop

It is telling, I think, that Oren Moverman's new film RAMPART (his sophomore directing effort, following his well-received The Messenger from 2009) is set in Los Angeles and tracks the ongoing break-down of a well-known, deeply disliked, greatly feared and very dirty cop. L.A. police have been notoriously racist and scandal-prone down the decades. I spent my first 20 years in Los Angeles and then came back for another ten as an adult  in the 1970s, so I can recall many of these "events" (sometimes via my older relatives talking about them), not to mention the movies that have covered them -- from Eastwood's Changeling (set during the 1920s) to Mr. Moverman's current exam-ple, which has been set nearly 20 years ago, in the early 1990s.

If, with his first film, Moverman (shown at left) offered us something relatively clear-cut and easy to digest -- the movie was a series of visits by military police to inform relatives of the loss of their loved ones in our current war efforts -- his latest film is much more daring and so is likely to be met with some hesitation and concern. What he has done in Rampart is give us as near a complete look at this cop as would seem possible, so that we observe him in a remarkably full view as he interacts with family, friends, co-workers and superiors. It is not a pretty picture, but it is a memorable one.

This, in fact, may be the (certainly one of) most thoroughly observed character study of the abuse of power centered in the hands of a policeman ever captured in a narrative film, and in the role of the protagonist, Woody Harrelson (above) is giving the kind of performance that would win every award in sight -- certainly an "Oscar" nomination for Best Actor -- were the film to be seen by a large enough audience.

That it will not be much seen can be chalked up to the fact that Moverman is rigorous in his writing and film-making, giving us this guy "whole" rather than mostly the bad parts, or the juicy parts, or the good parts. We see him as a father, a lover, a husband and a cop doing his duty -- and then doing just the opposite. Sometimes what we see is so casually shocking as to seem unreal (he didn't just do what I think he did? No...). Eventually we realize that we're dealing here with a monster of sorts, someone on the brink. That we still somehow "root" for the man, even as part of us wants to see him dead is what makes Moverman's work so important. Vestiges of this guy's humanity remain, no matter what. And that's a very big "what."

Harrelson's character (generically named "Dave Brown") is surrounded by women -- from his ex-wives (sisters played well by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) to his daughters to one of his superiors (played by Sigorney Weaver) to his casual (or not so) flings like the lawyer (played by Robin Wright, above) -- so that most of the men we see are generally his victims (well, literally everyone, each in his/her way, is his victim).

Male roles are filled by actors as good (and as different) as Ice Cube (above, right), Ned Beatty, Steve Buscemi and Ben Foster. From a technical standpoint, this film seems light years beyond The Messenger. The camerawork is often thrilling, the performances have not just depth but immediacy, and the sound seems particularly noteworthy (you'll notice the sound of flamenco dancing behind one scene, of vacuuming behind another). The single weak link may be the fact that Dave Brown's behavior is so bad -- and has been for so long -- that you do wonder why the L.A.P.D has kept him on the payroll this entire time. As I recall, when cops get to be this much of an embarrassment to the force, they can no longer be allowed to run roughshod.

Mr. Moverman is an Israeli filmmaker, so I do wonder (though I do not think this was intentionally done on the director's part) if this singular character -- a representative of something hugely powerful and initially trusted as a force for good that has now corrupted itself and become a force for evil -- could also be seen as a stand-in for the state of Israel itself. (Or for that mater, the state of the USA.) This has occurred to me several times since viewing the movie, and while I don't want to attribute it to Moverman, it does strike me as a valid interpreta-tion of a film that works well within or without interpretation.

Rampart, 112 minutes, from Millennium Entertainment, opens on Wednesday, November 23, in New York City at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Sunset 5.

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