Review: Rampart

Oren Moverman re-teams with Woody Harrelson for his latest film about a dirty LAPD cop who is caught on camera beating a suspect. Can it live up to the excellent The Messenger?

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Over the past few decades, there’s been a fair few films that have deserved (though not necessarily won) a Best Actor gong at the Oscars – though wouldn’t stand much of a chance in the Best Picture field. This situation has been amplified recently: take a look at the likes of The Woman in Black, The Thing and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. All films have a level of acting which surpasses the overall quality of the film itself. Hold onto that thought for a moment – we’ll find out why at the end of the review.

Oren Moverman’s Rampart tells the tale of rogue cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), in what might best be termed a ‘documentary’ style film – or at least, that’s certainly the impression the sharp cuts, constantly in-motion cameras and stop-start storyboarding imply. Indeed, Rampart is a documentary of Dave’s life – and what a life. He has two daughters by two sisters (prompting the youngest to inquire whether she is inbred, to which Dave offers a typically humourous response), lives with them all in the same house and has the nickname Daterape Dave. That Harrelson manages to make him the most likeable person ever associated with the term ‘daterape’ is testimony to his performance, but more on that later.

Rampart’s documentary feel is further propagated through the lack of clear direction in terms of the film’s plot – essentially, it revolves around Dave’s comeuppance, as his rogue ways get him into trouble when he’s filmed beating a suspect. This plot takes something of a backdrop, however, to the majority of the film – what Rampart is really about is Dave as a character; it’s an examination of his psyche. We learn what makes Dave tick, witness his struggled relationships with his daughters and their mothers, and eventually watch his stable, guarded world of tranquillity (though Dave’s definition of the word is very different to what you or I might call tranquil) begin to crumble and collapse around him.

“Dave is the star of the show, and his twisted, enigmatic persona is the film’s main draw.”

The film leaves plenty to its audience in that respect; its ambiguous nature furthered only by its ambiguous climax. In true documentary style, it’s often up to the viewer to analyse Dave’s motives and persona for themselves. While this is admittedly welcome amidst a sea of brainless Transformers films, it can often feel unfulfilling and unsatisfying, and lack the emotional punch Moverman seems to be going for. It is here where Rampart stumbles, and so too in its stop-start storyboarding mentioned previously – a disjointed and disorienting staple if ever there was one. But, being more of a character profile than a classic narrative, Rampart is about more than just its story – indeed, the focus here is on the characters.

Dave is the star of the show, and his twisted, enigmatic persona is the film’s main draw. But the supporting cast do a damn fine job, in terms of acting appeal and also in terms of the way the characters are written. Typically rebellious eldest daughter Helen (Brie Larson, perhaps best known for her role as Envy Adams in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) smartly brings Dave down a peg or two with her (as Dave puts it) ‘rehearsed’ attack on his lifestyle and manner – a scathing, glaring rant involving words such as ‘racist’ and ‘womanising’ that tears apart Dave’s charismatic nature. Meanwhile, youngest daughter Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky) picks up a few choice words off her sister and uses them to disparaging means. But Dave’s influence on her is similar, as he tells her not to bother with homework and just watch TV with him.

It’s a look inside a highly dysfunctional family with a highly dysfunctional core in the form of Dave; exemplified still further when he asks each sister in turn if they would like to spend the night with him. Their nonchalant approach to this suggests that not only is it the norm but that they do not disapprove his asking of it whilst eating a family dinner with their daughter. The only hint that the sisters are aware of their situation comes when one half of the pair (played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche, though they are nothing remarkable) launches an equally frenzied verbal attack at Dave as that of Helen’s – claiming he has ‘forever damaged’ their children by bringing them up in this way, with both sisters living under the same roof (which harkens back to Margaret’s earlier question about inbreeding).

Think back to the start of this review – some movies deserve Best Actor awards, but not Best Picture. Rampart is one such film; the often mediocre and unsatisfying nature of the picture belying its capable lead actor’s masterful performance as Dave, and all his quirks, oddities and sociopathic tendencies. It’s still a fine piece of film, offering an interesting insight into the dysfunctional nature of the pseudo-Nuclear family, but feels less than the sum of its parts and leaves us wanting so much more.

Review by Chris WharfeSee all reviews

Directed by: Oren Moverman
Written by: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman
Starring: Woody Harrelson, Ice Cube, Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Steve Buscemi, Sigourney Weaver
Released: 2009 / Genre: Drama/Thriller / Country: USA / IMDB
Buy on DVD: DVD | Blu-ray
More reviews: Latest | Archive

About the Author
Chris hasn’t seen much of the world. What little he has seen frightened him a fair bit – he started life by almost drowning in a lake – and what better place to hide from the troubles of mankind than in the dusty aisles of the local cinema?

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  1. Avatar
    Castor Reply

    Damn… Looks like one of those movies where the central performance is so much better than the movie itself 🙁 I’ll still check it out for Woody Harrelson but with lower expectations.

  2. Avatar
    Jaskee Reply

    Good review. I plan on reviewing this myself within the next week or so.

  3. Avatar
    Evan Crean Reply

    I wanted to like this film so badly considering one of my all time favorite authors, James Ellroy, co-wrote it. His talent for writing compelling crime dramas set in LA seemed like a recipe for success, but this movie felt like the longest hour and 45 minutes of nothing happening. I was literally so bored that I had to look up the running time in the middle of it, just so I knew how much time was left.

    I understood the documentary aspect, however I really hated the lack of direction. None of the conflict felt compelling or like it was a big deal, even though it was supposed to be unraveling his life. There were so many great actors in this movie too, whose abilities I thought were squandered in such one-dimension supporting parts.

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