From the pen of acclaimed crime writer James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential) and the lens of Academy Award-nominated director Oren Moverman comes Rampart (2011), a dirty cop drama set against the backdrop of 1990s Los Angeles. Taking inspiration from the infamous Rampart corruption scandal of the decade in which it’s set, Moverman’s nightmarish neo-noir just manages to stand out from this packed genre thanks to a ferocious central performance from regular collaborator Woody Harrelson.
Harrelson plays Dave ‘Date Rape’ Brown, a repugnant, racist thug of an LAPD officer who received his nickname after reputedly murdering a suspected rapist. Much like Harvey Keitel’s/Nicolas Cage’s Bad Lieutenant(s), Brown has his own unique interpretation of the American Justice System, handing out punishment like a real-life Judge Dredd. Following a high profile incident of police brutality, Brown is dragged over the coals by his superiors (played expertly by Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi), before being used as a scape-goat in an impending corruption scandal. Backed into a corner, the bestial Brown becomes more volatile and unstable with every passing hour, all the while pursued by Internal Affairs investigator Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube).
There’s a distinct Shakespearean tone to Moverman’s LA story, with Harrelson’s Brown functioning as a tragic, corrupted lead of Macbeth-like proportions. As with the majority of Ellroy adaptations, violence is only ever a whisker away, with Brown himself both aggressor and exponent in the majority of cases. Yet the self-styled Date Rape isn’t completely infallible to bouts of weeping remorse, even making a number of failed attempts to reconcile with his two estranged daughters who refer to him via the same sickening moniker.
What really sticks in the deepest recesses of the mind after watching Rampart is the film’s sublime use of lighting and colour. Recalling both Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and Gaspar Noé’s magnificent Enter the Void (2010), Brown is at his most dangerous and unpredictable once the sun has set on the City of Angels. There are certain marked similarities between Noé’s most infamous work, 2002’s Irreversible, and Moverman’s film, most notably in a club/dungeon scene that bears nearly all the hallmarks of Rectum – minus the revealing title. Yet Moverman is very much his own director, galvanising Ellroy’s superb tale of moral/self-disintegration with visual flair and depth.
Tragically overlooked upon its UK cinematic release earlier this year (despite significant praise from a number of esteemed critics), Moverman’s own personal contribution to the neo-noir cause is as brutal, nihilistic and darkly comic a piece as one would ever want to sit through, walking the tightrope between enjoyment and endurance just as Brown flits between either side of the Thin Blue Line. There may not be anything grossly original about Rampart, but then bent cops have been a part of our public psyche almost as long as the villains they are employed to protect us against.