2017 Film Essays

‘Rampart’: A Season in the Abyss

There is perhaps no more painful illustration of the slender line which separates award glory from obloquy than the Rampart screener debacle. In 2011, Woody Harrelson had received rapturous reviews for his coruscating central performance and was a genuine contender for an Oscar nomination. So began the strenuous campaigning for Academy member consideration. But the smoothly coordinated charm offensive that the Weinsteins and their ilk have turned into a dark art malfunctioned catastrophically, in the form of faulty screener discs. On such careless compression and replication are Oscar season dreams torpedoed.

In any case, it may have been that the Academy had sated its hunger for moral ambiguity by the time Rampart rolled around, having successively given Best Picture awards to Martin Scorsese’s febrile reimagining of Infernal Affairs (2002) and the Coens’ faithful rendering of Cormac McCarthy’s bleak moral vista. Bending to the prevailing public presentiment, the Academy briefly acceded to reward works of a less meretricious metre. After that, it was triumph over adversity, social edification and industry self-congratulation all the way.

Rampart was always going to be a hard sell; a work which has neither the moralistic ire of Serpico (1973) or the vicarious histrionics of Training Day (2001). In many ways, it is the anti-Training Day, stripping away the visual and dramatic excesses of Antoine Fuqua’s turgid parable to reveal the lacerating core. There is an indeterminacy to Rampart which creates a palpable sense of disquiet. It is this effect which may account for its lacklustre box office performance. Rampart has little in the way of revelation or retribution, luxuriating in the grey area. It is less an internal affairs saga than a long, hard look into the abyss.

Rampart takes place in the aftermath of the corruption scandal which enveloped the LAPD’s Rampart Division. The central character, officer Dave Brown (Harrelson), struggles to exist in the state of flux within the department and to meet the challenges of his outré domestic situation. Brown is a man cut adrift from family and force; he is losing definition — the edges have begun to blur and slowly consume him. The old values are eroding, and Brown cannot see beyond the context which sustained his behaviour. As such, Rampart is as much about repercussions than actions. It is more about the reckoning than the wrongdoing.

Director/co-writer Oren Moverman is adept at framing elusive characters. His screenwriting credits include Todd Haynes’ quest for the essence of Bob Dylan, I’m Not There (2007), and Bill Pohlad’s wistful Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy (2014). As with Moverman’s directorial debut, The Messenger (2009), Rampart challenges male archetypes by placing them in proximity to complicating forces, probing notions of fortitude and strength. In Moverman’s universe, the true challenge of male mettle takes place after the shots have been fired. The battle really begins when the hero finds himself enfolded in silence. In its convergence of the hardboiled and the existential, Rampart is a forerunner to HBO’s True Detective, gleaning a core of psychological truth within its neo-Noir conceits.

It should come as no surprise that Moverman’s writing partner on Rampart was James Ellroy. The crime fiction author’s blistering wit comes to the fore in moments of verbal bravura such as Brown’s interaction with Assistant District Attorney, Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), and his steamy yet nihilistic encounters with pugnacious and dissolute lawyer, Linda Fentress (Robin Wright). Brown is perhaps the purest cinematic distillation of Ellroy’s literary disposition, with his high-calibre cynicism fighting the fatalism that stalks him at every turn. Ellroy taps into unsettling currents of continuity between sexual and aggressive energy.

Brown is a figure beset by contradictions — a man who laments that “the rules change, the laws change, the people change,” while conceding that “I can never change.” Brown has absorbed the rubric of right-wing talk radio, yet leads an unorthodox home life dominated by strong women. He is illustrative of the fact that the hardest thing to do is live up to the flimsy definition of ourselves we construct. Our identity is often a contingent gestalt.

Behind the camera, there are moments when Moverman mistakes movement for meaning. A particularly glaring example of this tendency is a scene in which he opts to rotate the camera between Harrelson, Weaver and Steve Buscemi, rather than cut back and forth. The effect is conspicuous and jarring; there is a sense of Moverman trying to register his presence in the midst of so much dramatic firepower. Which isn’t to say that Moverman is overmatched; he harnesses L.A.’s inviting and dizzying lights to dramatise Brown’s steady descent, thanks in no small part to Bobby Bukowski’s stylishly sinister cinematography. The scenes of the city at night bring to mind Robert Elswit’s work on Nightcrawler (2014).

Rampart abounds with supporting talent: Ned Beatty is particularly adept at scene-stealing smaller roles — as his barnstorming turn in Network (1976) attests — and he is in scintillating form here as a retired cop whose allegiances are never clear. Ice Cube spars admirably with Harrelson as a dogged DA investigator who pursues Brown; he is a symbol of the new spirit which is throwing light into every squalid corner of a recalcitrant force. With his typical immersion in a role, Ben Foster is virtually unrecognisable as a homeless veteran who finds himself thrust into Brown’s web of duplicity, a classic Noir dupe.

What really distinguishes Rampart from the standard police corruption film, and prevents it from sliding into outright misanthropy, is its focus on the emotional stakes. Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon give no quarter as the sisters who have both been married to and had children with Brown, and with whom Brown shares an increasingly untenable domestic setup. Their performances serve to tether the viewer to a recognisable emotional terrain, preventing one from getting lost in the jungle of Brown’s subconscious. Brie Larson gives a fiery performance as Brown’s increasingly disenchanted daughter, succeeding in conveying Helen’s anger without falling on the crutch of obstreperous teen angst.

As with the faulty screeners which scuppered its Oscar campaign, there is something “severely flawed” in the fabric of Rampart, something fundamental which prevents its components from falling seamlessly into alignment. As compelling as Harrelson’s and many of the supporting performances are, Moverman and Ellroy’s screenplay offers some discomfiting insights: that nothing is ever truly resolved; that historic grievances fester and metastasize; that men and women cannot comfortably co-exist; that human frailty will win out. Rampart can never step out of the shadows. But if one accepts it on its own aphotic terms, if one resolves to approach the abyss, its darkness assumes a lyrical tint.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.