Thin Blue Line, by Scott Nye
You think you’ve seen a corrupt cop onscreen? You don’t even know from corruption, man. For one thing, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) has crazy Woody Harrelson eyes. For another, he makes a rookie cop chow down an order of fries that she’s avoiding on account of a diet. For yet another, he beats the hell out of a guy after a hit-and-run incident. Also he divorced his first wife and married her sister (and had a daughter by each) and they’re all living together in one house. Oh, and Dave’s nickname is “Date-Rape Dave.” And none of that is even the central thrust of the story.
Yes, Oren Moverman’s Rampart is a crazy freaking movie.
After his relatively stable debut, The Messenger, one could be forgiven for expecting another shaky-cam, semi-respectable look at corruption in the LAPD, but this movie, a neon-noir, darkly-comic, horndog pit of sleaze is so not that film. It’s not the weirdest movie I’ve seen all year (I mean, after the talking catfish of Uncle Boonmee, what’s really going to hold a candle?), but it’s without a doubt the weirdest normal movie of 2011.
The incredible commitment on the part of everyone involved has a lot to do with that. Woody Harrelson is not always a good actor, but he’s nearly always a great one, and his take on this character has to go down as one of the greats. He’s effortlessly charming. It’s not hard to see why so many women have fallen for him, and for that matter why so many in his department so thoroughly respect him. But his charm can turn on a dime into total degradation, and it’s pretty easy to understand why those who are drawn to him just as quickly desert him. He has no regard for how his actions affect anyone (including, often, himself), but expects everyone to fall in line when he finally decides to show up.
The supporting cast includes Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Robin Wright, Ned Beatty, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Ice Cube, Steve Buscemi, and on and on down the line. All of them seem freely open to interpret their characters their own way, while falling very much in line with how Dave views them. And more so than anything, that is the film’s great strength – putting you in the mindset of a crazy guy with a badge. Moverman’s choices of composition, editing, and color palette are not the conventional choices for this (or nearly any other) story, but he creates a very vivid, schizophrenic energy that announces fairly quickly, “you’re either on for this or you’re off; I certainly do not give a damn.” The dialogue is that sort of great, scintillating, cops-and-lawyers kind of talk you would expect, but we might see a great deal of the scene looking at one character’s back, or in a constantly-cutting series of camera pans across a table, or any other insane way you could think to shoot a fairly straightforward scene.
In most stories of corruption, the officer has some sense of personal justice that drives him to subvert the law, and Dave Brown has elements of that. But the thing that gives Rampart its power is Dave’s ever-shifting concept of what that justice means. It could really be in service of a larger good that he has to step outside the law to see carried out. It could be that this guy over here is kind of pissing him off. It could be that he’s the guilty one who needs to be punished. And the way these crimes are or are not accounted for leaves a real imprint.
This is a powerful performance by Woody Harrelson, his best since “People VS Larry Flynt” (although I haven’t seen “The Messenger” yet). Like the bad cops of Harvey Keitel in “Bad Lieutanant” and Denzel Washington in “Training Day” , Harrelson’s is a man who seems doomed from the get-go and watching a doomed character’s slow plunge into hell will always elicit a sympathetic response from me, although not enough to want to see such corrupt scum from getting away with their crimes. The direction is pretty solid though it does more than once call attention to itself (the loopy acid-house scene) and some of Woody’s legal speechifying seems to be a James Ellroy lecture by proxy. But even then it’s still riveting stuff. It’s a sad story but I hope it finds an audience.