TIFF 2011: RAMPART Review

     September 15, 2011

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In his debut feature The Messenger, director Oren Moverman eschewed the simplistic and pandering Soldiers-with-PTSD story seen in films like Stop-Loss and In the Valley of Elah.  Moverman took a deeper look to see how two soldiers struggled to heal their personal wounds by examining how the men struggled to help others deal with the loss of loved ones.  It was a smart and unusual way to tell a story and he has continued that approach with Rampart.  Coupled with another astounding performance from Woody Harrleson, Moverman  turns the genre on its head by showing that one dirty cop’s warped sense of justice may be necessary to not only to the world, but to his own existence.

“This is a military occupation,” officer Dave Brown (Harrelson) tells a rookie cop as they patrol the rougher parts of downtown Los Angeles in 1999.  Brown works in LA’s Rampart Division, which is under investigation for numerous cases of alleged corruption, intimidation, and coercion.  Aside from a questionable shooting of a suspected sex offender thirteen years ago—an act which earned him the nickname “Date-Rape Dave”—, Dave’s abuse of power has managed to fly under the radar.  One day while on patrol, Dave is t-boned by a random vehicle.  When the driver tries to flee, Dave catches the perpetrator and beats him half-to-death, which is not only terrible in and of itself, but terrible for Dave who is caught on camera thus adding to the department’s woes.

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Dave’s given multiple opportunities to retire, to resign, to accept a settlement, anything to get him out of the department quietly and spare them another headache.  Dave refuses.  He’s not out to protect his reputation, but he refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing or to leave his life as a cop.  He then plunges himself deeper into trouble when he becomes involved in a questionable shooting following the robbery of an underground poker game.

Why is Dave doing this?  Moverman refuses to make it as simple as self-destruction brought on by self-loathing.  Dave is in the midst of a downward slide but you consistently get the sense that he believes he’s fine and it’s the world sliding downhill.  He believes he can ride out the scandal and eventually order—his order—will be restored.  And if the department can’t understand why they need him, then he must be a victim of a massive conspiracy where it would take actors working on a grand stage to bring him down.  Moverman cleverly mocks Dave’s mindset as the scenes of Dave’s personal life are shot cinéma vérité while his scenes wrangling with the department are shot as if the conspiracy were real.  The camera swishes around a table during an argument, the camera huddles in on private discussions, and we see the movie Dave believes he’s living in.

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However, even his moniker, “Date-Rape Dave” implies his dirtiness and he only asks that his daughter Helen (Brie Lason) not call him by that name.  He wants to keep his family separate from the darkness of the world and he believes he is the only one who can do it.  Dave knows he’s a monster and he doesn’t care.  Woody Harrelson’s fearless and fearsome performance shows Dave as a loathsome human being but still a human being, and perhaps someone who is all-too-human.  Moverman and Harrelson provide no simple explanation for Dave Brown and his motives.  We’re trusted to explore those on our own and possibly face some unpleasant conclusions.

Rampart can at turns be incredibly frustrating because we want to understand what makes Dave tick and how every scene clicks together, but sometimes the intensity is so severe that continuing to explore Dave’s demons is a less-than-enticing proposition.  But that’s the point.  We’re not mean to enjoy this film as an action-thriller or a moralizing drama.  There’s no quality of seduction with Dave Brown like there was with Vic Mackey in The Shield or Alonzo Harris in Training Day.  There’s no pity, no redemption, and no easy answers to Moverman’s film.  And the more I try to answer the questions posed by Rampart, the more I enjoy it.

Rating: A-

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my TIFF 2011 reviews so far:

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