107 min., rated R.
Aside from Nicolas Cage's homicide detective Terence McDonagh in 2009's "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans," Dave Brown is probably the dirtiest, most corrupt cop in the tough, steadfast character study "Rampart." And this might be actor Woody Harrelson's most staggering and audacious character work since Larry Flynt. We know he's capable of wound-up intensity and darkness (Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers" is enough proof), but Harrelson's commitment to invest so much complexity into the role of a dirty cop makes this his magnum opus.
Los Angeles, 1999. To put in perspective just how disrespected Dave is, his moniker on the force is "Date Rape Dave" for being suspected of pre-meditatively killing an alleged date-rapist instead of arresting him. He's a Vietnam vet-turned-police officer who smokes and drinks as much as he picks up women in bars to sleep with in hotel rooms. Though not quite the catch, Dave does have two daughters, Helen (Brie Larson) and Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), each from two of his ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche), who happen to be sisters. His relationship with Margaret is at least sturdier than the one with Helen, and he oddly functions with his exes who let him reside in their houses but won't sleep with him even when he begs. In the meantime, Dave gets involved with a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright), who makes him paranoid. On the job front, the Rampart district police department is troubled by an ongoing corruption scandal. Dave increasingly makes his life harder when he's caught on tape brutally beating up a motorist that smashes into him on the street. Investigators and district attorneys can't get him to retire, so Dave fights his case, until he gets involved with an armed robbery.
The one entry point into coming closer to empathizing with and understanding the abhorrent, hardly likable Dave is through the relationships with his two daughters. He tries to spend time with them and tries redeeming himself through those times, but creates his own hell with the brutality scandal. When Dave and his rebellious daughter Helen have their first one-to-one moment together, she calls him "a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, and homophobic." Fiercely acted by Harrelson, Dave is all of those things, and also hyper-articulate. With an investigator (Ice Cube), he unapologetically tells him, "I am not a racist. Fact is, I hate all people equally."
Harrelson's nuanced performance cannot be overlooked, and isn't the only element that makes the film worthwhile. Director Oren Moverman (2009's "The Messenger"), who co-wrote the script with hard-boiled crime storyteller James Ellroy, captures the bleak sewer of the Los Angeles police world but not without raw viscera. The dialogue never takes the lazy, expository shorthand, but it's rather rich and fleshes out its characters, some more than others. Sigourney Weaver and Ned Beatty, respectively playing an IA investigator and Dave's mentor, pop up now and then, Steve Buscemi having the least to do but whose presence still resonates. In another strong performance, Wright makes something out of nothing in the part of Linda, who's good in the sack but not at limiting her alcohol intake. Finally, Larson proves she has more going on than most working actresses her age.
With Bobby Bukowski's jittery digital cinematography, Moverman really sets us under the scorched sun of the L.A. streets to offset the story's darker tone, which alternately comes across in full force in grungy shadows. One phantasmagoric sequence of jarring sound and visuals takes place in an underground sex club, where Dave takes out his ugly addictions.
This being more of a character study than a dirty-cop thriller à la "Cop Land" and "Training Day," the film tends to get wrapped up in its scandals and crimes, but plot is the least of the filmmakers' concerns. Even the conclusion seems to have deeper implications than just spoon feeding us the rest. "Rampart" never once whitewashes its downbeat subject matter—Dave having little hope as his life goes straight down the tubes—and in that respect might be a turn-off to some. But if you can handle the film's unblinking look at corruption and lack of redemption, Harrelson offers up that reality to us straight and with a cigarette.