Passive victims of crime are rare in popular American cinema. In Crime Films, scholar Thomas Leitchobserves that a lead character, if violated, will move toward vengeance, either on his/her own or with assistance. A strong exception is the new abuse victim film (Mysterious Skin, Towelhead, Precious), which studies victimization without the causal vengeance (while resisting criticism of being another example of American talk-show-borne ‘victim culture’).
Oren Moverman’s Rampart is not remote from the style. This avenger film (centered on a bitter L.A.P.D. cop, Dave Brown, played by Woody Harrelson) reverses the arc of the victim narrative. Dave begins the film on the beat, putatively active, though with questionable motivation; by the end, he’s stuck. Like Moverman’s previous film, The Messenger, about military death-notice deliverymen that also stars Harrelson, Rampart positions itself as a character study more than an indictment against the eponymous scandal. This window into Dave’s life contains events with little cohesion. He seems in need of the cause-and-effect order of a traditional police thriller.
In the opening scene, Dave endorses a myth of his police department by complaining of its loss of grandeur. Harrelson suits the nostalgic strain of a lawman well, as Dave’s been hardened by crime and his renegade approach to righting it. Like the myth of the American West in a related genre, Dave reflects on an ideal past that never really was. Dave works Los Angeles, the ‘last spot’ on the American frontier that became the principal home of noir. In this style’s take on LA, the desert remains a wasteland in urban form (highlighted so well in Roman Polanski and Robert Towne’s classic neo-noir, Chinatown). Daves’s firm exterior suggests the gunfighter and renegade cop of the New Hollywood era, while a weary nerviness emerges. The connection helps to recall Harrelson’s brief yet memorable role in No Country for Old Men as bounty hunter Carson Wells, working among southwest drug trafficking of the 1980s. He arrives to resolve an issue concerning the extreme threat of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem). In Well’s meeting with a higher up (an unnamed character played by the shapeshifting Stephen Root), who occupies a skyscraper office and deals in illegal street trade, Wells coolly discusses the case while knowing he must surmount Chigurh’s extreme power. As an unofficial investigator/avenger, he welcomes a Dirty Harry-sized opposition, now with less hope. Rampart‘s Dave, meanwhile, has as much potential in his milieu.
While extending myth and condemning modern times from the start, Dave demeans two progressive values in one act. A female patrol officer, eating a fast food lunch with Dave, attempts to throw away most of her french fries, noting a health issue. Dave retorts that police should eat it all, urging a female (likely misplaced for the job, in his view) to match the machismo tendency to consume the good and the bad, equally, without bothering to sort it out. An agent of repression, he suggests that eating the city’s problems with aggression will tame rising crime. Essentially, he condemns both equal opportunity that had brought women to the urban police force, and moderation/reflection, the cure for both distress and ill health on the job. The latter approach in law enforcement would treat the cause of crime more than aggressively snuffing the effects (as nutrition would combat obesity in America more than the work of countless weight-loss surgeries).
In contrast to his hyper-conservative values at work, Dave lives in a non-traditional familial group. He has children with two ex-wives, who are sisters and, oddly, housemates with him. It’s as if Moverman and co-writer James Ellroy threw The Kids are All Right, Lisa Cholodenko’s lesbian-family-meets-adoptive-father comedy, into a blender to match the organized chaos of Dave’s work. At best, his is a pseudo-family, which the older of two daughters notes through her angry collage art and quiet implication of her father’s behavior. We’re unsure if she’s keen on dad’s regular womanizing, which includes a night with a cop-loving African American woman. By day, Dave drops casual racism then asserts he’s fair when admitting that he’s slept with members of the race. His more intense bigotry comes when he attempts to run over a group of Mexicans, more machismo to the female cop riding alongside him.
In line with the title, which situates the time frame between the Rodney King riots and 9-11 (the film is set in 1999), Dave uses brutal interrogation techniques, slamming a suspect against a plexiglass wall. Dave’s nickname, Date-Rape, even used by his older daughter, at first suggests his aggression had bled into his personal life. We soon learn it refers to an accusation on the job, when Dave had killed a suspect for the nominal crime. The issue looms over him and is ready to fall, should he cross the line again. When he does, after his patrol car is hit and he chases down and beats the driver, Dave’s act is televised and in the hands of the city’s politicians.
Harrelson’s avenger turns more criminal when he gets a tip about a card game. Dave’s plan to break it up and run off with the cash backfires when robbers arrive. After chasing down a gunman and shooting dead the card-player in pursuit, Dave commands the robber to grab some spoils and run off. This deal gone wrong, with bodies, recalls the central busted drug deal in No Country for Old Men, from which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) foolishly runs off, with the leftover cash. After the intercepted robbery, Dave is no ironic man-of-action in flight but the criminal who causes the fallout. He instigates the legal ordeal that delivers his self-victimization and eventual passivity.
From here, Moverman introduces elements of the paranoid thriller. Dave’s convinced he’s being tailed, a fear proven when he spots a plainclothesman (Ice Cube) on his trail. Moverman frequently uses a trailing camera to imply Dave’s isolation, in spite of his false sense of integration at home and work. To reflect Dave’s confusion after his robbery-murder, Moverman needlessly includes a descent into a hedonistic rave party, where Dave purges almost everything. The film’s other weakness is a saturated natural backlight, appearing when the mothers confront Dave and when he ponders his own existence. The harsh white consumes Harrelson’s presence, the film’s great strength.
In Moverman and Ellroy’s loose approach, Dave’s strained relationship with his older daughter threads the narrative. The theme nicely connects to Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which uses the trailing camera motif to highlight a loner’s futile quest. Spotting the kinship assures viewers that, soon enough, the daughter will confront father. Many have noted Rampart‘s more obvious connection to Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant (1992), though Werner Herzog’s 2009 update of the property offers more insight into Moverman’s new film. The newer BL doesn’t call for the lead’s redemption (as does Ferrara’s), but lets him remain bad. The narrative develops to present the truth behind the bad cop. Harrelson’s Dave tries to redeem himself though, like Herzog’s character, we know he never really cared for those he was hired to protect. Salvation is a far cry.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, N.J. His book, The New American Crime Filmis forthcoming with McFarland.