‘Rampart’ feels like no movie you’ve ever seen. Taking the same meandering, off-beam improv techniques that he employed to devastating emotional effect in his directorial debut, ‘The Messenger’, and applying them to a sprawling police procedural script originally penned by crime mastermind James Ellroy, Oren Moverman has produced a stunning, idiosyncratic anti-thriller which, like its brash, inflexible central character, refuses to play by any rules.
Woody Harrelson plays ‘Date Rape’ Dave Brown, a bulldog beat cop working in LA’s infamous Rampart division during the long-running late ’90s corruption scandal which would ultimately tear the department apart. Brown is the ultimate cinematic expression of Ellroy’s archetypal hero: a conflicted, violent, womanising, borderline racist murderer with a razor wit, an encyclopaedic brain and a dominant instinct towards the (many) women in his life.
The film’s foremost act of rebellion against Hollywood orthodoxy is its absolute avoidance of narrative momentum: though numerous plot strands weave in and out, very few are resolved. This is a character study plain and simple, a journey into the mind of one very serious, very smart, very sick individual. And Harrelson more than rises to the occasion: this is not only by far his finest performance but one of the most impressive in recent memory.
Moverman responds with a visual and aural barrage, a kaleidoscope of off-kilter angles, screeching noise and intimate studies of Harrelson’s increasingly haggard face. The result is abrasive but deeply involving: there’s barely a shot or a line of dialogue that doesn’t add to our understanding of – and grudging appreciation of – this flawed figure. A word of advice: ‘Rampart’ should be seen on the big screen, Moverman and Harrelson’s commitment demanding equal focus from the viewer.
It’s impossible to list all of the incidental pleasures ‘Rampart’ offers, from a stunning B-cast including Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon as Brown’s ex-wives, and Sigourney Weaver as a thin-lipped department head, to a disorienting soundtrack incorporating everything from Leonard Cohen to Gang Gang Dance. The closest point of comparison might be Ben Wheatley’s similarly erratic ‘Kill List’. Like that film, ‘Rampart’ is sure to provoke furious reactions in those unwilling to succumb to its mood of reckless abandon. But for those who can, this feverish slice of LA noir is set to be one of the purest cinematic pleasures of 2012.