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Weasel Weapon

Rampart (2011)

55th BFI London Film Festival

“Rampart” is a symphony of bad decisions and their consequences. For example, early in the film Los Angeles cop Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) chats up a woman (Audra McDonald) in a bar, who persists in wanting to converse despite Dave’s dramatic insults. Evidently, she has a serious cop fetish. When she cheerfully presses for his nickname around the station, he shrugs: “It’s Date Rape.” She flinches; and he explains that many years ago he was involved in a shooting in which a serial rapist was killed. Dear reader, she sleeps with him anyway.

Something is eating Dave up inside: He’s a little too thin. He can’t eat; and he can’t sleep. When he doesn’t wear sunglasses, he squints in the bright California sunshine. He’s happier indoors, in the semi-darkness. His ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) are sisters and next-door neighbors, each has a daughter (Brie Larson and Sammy Boyarsky respectively) with Dave. Dave sleeps in a dark little studio at the back. He smokes constantly. And as the title implies, he is not a good man.

This is an unusual movie in almost every way. It is made with such skill and confidence that we understand Dave even before the specifics of the story become clear, although you’d expect nothing less from James Ellroy, who co-wrote the film with director Oren Moverman. Dave sees himself as a good man, keeping innocent people safe and punishing the bad. He knows the lingo, ways to justify himself and reading people expertly. But it’s equally clear that Dave has made the mistake of believing his own hype. And that makes him incapable of listening to the people around him, such as Sigourney Weaver as a departmental lawyer, Robin Wright as another pickup, Ice Cube as an equally smart cop or Ned Beatty as a fixer and confidant. Then one of Dave’s misdeeds is caught on tape. By the time cinematographer Bobby Bukowski’s camera follows Dave in a spectacular shot down a shuttered empty street toward a late-night poker game, we know something worse is about to happen — and we are right.

In all the best ways, this is an adult movie — in that it addresses personal responsibility for managing the darkness inside us. It’s frightening and violent but never gratuitous, and even the sex is simultaneously revealing and restrained. There are an enormous amount of women, who are fully realized people in their own right — which is almost unheard of in a cop movie. It looks terrific, and clever camerawork adds to its power instead of being the usual showy distraction.

It is not perfect: Francis Capra’s billing for an extremely small part hints at some overzealous editing; and to show someone’s life crisis by sending him into a red-light underground club is beyond cliché. But this is an intelligent movie on a difficult subject made with an enormous amount of class; and that makes “Rampart” an experience to be savored. Mr. Harrelson has become an astonishingly brave actor who carries the movie with ease, and with just the tilt of his head you can see how Dave is fighting some hard truths with everything he has. It also ends at exactly the right moment.


Opens on Nov. 23 in Manhattan and on Feb. 10, 2012 in the United Kingdom.

Directed by Oren Moverman; written by James Ellroy and Mr. Moverman; director of photography, Bobby Bukowski; edited by Jay Rabinowitz; music by Dickon Hinchliffe; production design by David Wasco; costumes by Catherine George; produced by Lawrence Inglee, Clark Peterson, Ben Foster and Ken Kao; released by Millennium Entertainment (United States) and Studiocanal (United Kingdom). Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Woody Harrelson (Dave Brown), Robin Wright (Linda Fentress), Sigourney Weaver (Joan Confrey), Ice Cube (Kyle Timkins), Ned Beatty (Hartshorn), Steve Buscemi (Bill Blago), Cynthia Nixon (Barbara), Anne Heche (Catherine), Brie Larson (Helen), Sammy Boyarsky (Margaret) and Ben Foster (General Terry).


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