Oren Moverman is a helluva director, an artist more interested in character than plot, in questions rather than answers, and who has a gift for working with actors, especially with his muse, Woody Harrelson. With just two films, The Messenger and Rampart, to his name as writer-director, the guy has impressed the hell out of me. Thing is, both films also suffer from the same problems. The guy is clearly someone to watch, but I also think he needs someone to reign it in for him when he goes off the rails.
Rampart follows Harrelson as he plays Dave Brown, an old school LAPD cop in the Rampart division. It’s 1999 and all kinds of police brutality charges are being leveled against the department, but after someone gets video of Brown whaling on a suspect, looks like the Vietnam and 24-year police veteran is the perfect scapegoat. Now Brown is doing all he can to hold onto the job and his family in the wake of the charges.
It’s an exciting film with a great central performance from Harrelson, a man who isn’t cruel so much as he is unwilling to change. He makes no apologies for how he handles the work and is even more interesting in his personal and family life. He lives with two of his ex-wives (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) and the kids he had with each of them, and is by all accounts a good father and provider. He switches beds when he can and when neither puts out he hits up a local bar where he’s usually able to pull down something decent for the night.
But while the character is fascinating and Moverman’s love for Brown and all his contradictions and eccentricities is palpable, Moverman’s focus gets away from him the last half hour, same as it did with The Messenger, bogging down the momentum of an up-till-that-point highly engrossing film. Though Moverman (who co-wrote the script with the great James Ellroy, it should be noted) is thankfully more interested in making a seventies-style character study rather than a police procedural, he could still have used a few more genre beats to make Rampart hang together in the final stretch.
There’s some structure brought to the proceedings through a subplot involving Ned Beatty as a shady ex-cop and father figure to Brown who helps him find a high-stakes card game to rob to help pay his lawyer fees, but the fallout to the hold-up is more ponderous than compelling, leading to Brown speculating that there’s a conspiracy against him. Though Brown’s suspicions of everyone is definitely part of the character, the open-endedness of this subplot compounded with the hugely ambiguous ending left just a few too many questions open to interpretation. Now I’d rather have an ambiguous ending than a truly shitty, tied-up-in-pretty-pink-bow ending any day, but at least some indication of what had been happening to Brown would have been nice.
But though the last act meanders and the film is more ambiguous than it needs to be, I’d still recommend it to adventurous crime fans. It’s got some great dialogue (personal favorite quote being from Brown, “I don’t cheat on my taxes. You can’t cheat on something you never committed to.”), it avoids cop movie cliches more than it plays down to them, and there are some truly great scenes to behold as well. (Brown’s confession to his two daughters is one of the finest scenes I’ve seen in quite some time.) Though a flawed film, it’s certainly ambitious, and an ambitious film that isn’t completely successful will always win out over a tame film that totally succeeds with me. Here’s hoping, though, that Moverman lets someone wrangle his ambitions a bit next time around.