Friday, 30 December 2011

“I don’t think what we saw was you taking it easy…on anyone”

Rampart: directed by Oren Moverman; written by Oren Moverman and James Ellroy

Two years ago Oren Overman delivered one of my favourite films of 2009, the very inconspicuous but very moving The Messenger featuring a tour-de-force performance from Ben Foster (with excellent supporting turns from Samantha Morton and Woody Harrelson) about a deployed soldier now Casualty Notification Officer , unable somewhat to make emotional connections with those around him. This time around he’s crafted Rampart a study of a police officer in 1999 Los Angeles with Harrelson as lead player this time. This protagonist, too, is not quite adept at carving emotional connections but he’s not as sympathetic. Dave Brown is a corrupt cop in the LA Rampart department, he’s living with his two ex-wives, sisters themselves, and his two children – one from each woman. A typical day of his is spent unnecessarily brutalising potential criminals, hitting the bars for a one-night stand and then heading home to hit up either wife for sex. And, that’s on a good day. On a bad day, the same thing happen but this time he gets caught on tape nearly beating a man to death and from there his life begins, it seems, to spiral out of control.
Deep down I’m more susceptible to sad stories with a glimmer of hope. So, even though my favourite film might be the ostensibly weepy The English Patient, there is more to discern in it than the death of the protagonist and his love (er, spoiler?). For all its bleakness, The Messenger was not an uncomfortably sad or angsty piece and Rampart with its unlovable antihero is a tough pill to swallow especially when it is essentially a character study of this hard to (give and receive) love man. And with this prickly man to navigate through the tale, it is uncertain whether Rampart is a tale about a man against a system, or a presentation of a man and his family issues. Nick Davis (his tweet-size review tells it good enough) mentioned that at its heart, the tale is about Woody and his women – and it’s not an incorrect assumption. In one of the earlier scenes Dave is showing a young female police the ropes. She buys a box of french-fries which she doesn’t plan to finish. He adamantly drives her to finish, and she offhandedly mentions that she never met her father who left her mother before she was born. Without any perceived change in temperament he takes the box from her and tosses it to a vagrant. Perhaps, and that is a very potent perhaps, I’m all too fond of romanticising even the darkest of characters but the entire duration of that scene, for me, plays out as the basic thesis of Rampart. This is why, then, the inevitable fall-out, and its ambiguous resolution (if it is even that) does not surprise me when it comes.
For, ultimately, Rampart is about a man on the journey to self-destruction. And, if I recall accurately, Harrelson is in nearly all (possibly all) of the film's scenes. Moverman has held on to that that grittily stylised form of shooting he utilised in The Messenger but put to, arguably, better effect here where the volatile photography and editing seems to be a reflection of the lead character's own volatility. It's a curious decision, especially when considered against the narrative's own lack of interest in getting beneath the issue affecting him. It's not so much that the tale we are presented with is one tinted with superficiality, but Moverman and Ellroy are not particularly interested in digging beneath the surface to find a significantly hook through which we are to identify with Dave. As the investigation into his machinations as a police officer gets under way he, or the film, has no qualms in revealing the most disgusting aspects of his qualities which are, curiously, neither played up for effect nor played down for empathy. It's what contributes to it being all the more interesting of an experience because with his adamant - misguided - belief that he's doing the "right" thing it lends an entire whole facet to the vigilante cop persona. Moverman, it would seem, is taking great pains to present an unglamorous perspective of a man with little hope of redemption.

But, as I said, I do think that there is some form of emotional resonance to take away from the piece. Taking the script into consideration it seems like little more than a modicum (which is really not a flaw in the script which is impressive in its paucity of embellishment), so it's up to the actors and considering the way the three significant scenes are presented it's difficult to NOT feel as if they're tacked on to elicit the same response it does in me, but the very fact that they do feel so incidental make me think that Moverman really is uninterested in moving the audience - at least in the most clichéd of forms. It's the actors who keep digging deeper, even as the film itself keeps trying to (like its protagonist) push us further away. Brie Larson, so incredible this last year doing her career best work on the final season of United States of Tara plays Dave's older daughter who for the first half of the film seems set up to represent the typical angst-ridden teen you'd anticipate. So, a visit to her father for a heart-to-heart, at first, seems bizarre but Larson and Harrelson in that very scene - for all its scarcity in running time - set up the roots for the dysfunctional family relations which the film, oddly, doesn't exploit as much as you'd expect.
For, you might have noticed me mentioning one of the most bizarre living arrangements captured on screen this year. Why is Dave living with his two ex-wives? Superlative credited is probably deserved to Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon for making that particular facet ring true because it's not until things are over that I begin to question to the reality of that situation. As good as they are neither Heche, Nixon (or Robin Wright who is sort of excellent in turn as one of his women, nor Audra McDonald in two scenes delivering a profound performance) is able to rally with Harrelson for the film's attention because it is his film. Rampart is about Woody and his women but, for me, it becomes Larson's Helen (the angry daughter) who becomes Woody's best scene partner. A final visit to his hotel room with her younger sister turns into the film's most profound scene and even though I might be moved on my more cynical days to object to the reaction it elicits in Dave - especially considering how that final shot implies that he's driving around in circles never learning anything - I really can't here because it all rings through with painful authenticity. And, yes, it comes too late for me to actual LIKE him, but I don't really have to like him to appreciate his existence and I don't have to like him to like his film. Ultimately, I suppose you could say that it does not tell us anything new in the way people with harsh exteriors having a modicum of softness underneath (if you see it my way) or people with harsh exteriors just being people with harsh exteriors (if you see it the way I think most might be inclined to). I like it best for its ability to pierce the consciousness of its lead zeroing in on the paranoia and coarseness, unafraid to turn the audience off because it's aware that that's the only way to tell this story. It works.



Dan O. said...

It's a little slow for me and what was an even bigger bummer was how barely anything happened, but Harrelson's performance is amazing and totally lifts this film above the usual bad-cop thriller we are so used to seeing nowadays. It's a shame that his Oscar steam kind of got lost but who knows, maybe next year? Good review man.

Paolo said...

Yes! Getting tired of the movie's lukewarm if not hostile criticism and I like that you agree with me about this movie and say things more eloquently than I could have. The performances are ace, the cinematography and camera movement are crazier than Moverman's work in The Messenger. He puts all the cards on the table.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

dan well considering how sedate the messenger in tone this one is quite fast :)

paolo even though i prefer his previous work, this is a much more audacious offering. i'm so keen on seeing what moverman does next. (and THANK YOU for the kind words.)