Fuck yeah, Woody Harrelson!
I kinda feel like most people aren’t going to find Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), the subject of Rampart, as sympathetic as I do. Since he’s in every scene of the movie and the style and intention are very much in line with the “character study” mold, you’re kinda stuck with him anyway. Whether you’re able to sympathize with him or not is sort of the question the movie is asking. How it navigates his fucked up life, including his bizarre family dynamic, is part of what separates Rampart from a pile of similar “dirty cop self-destructs” movies/tv shows that we’ve all probably seen dozens of times by now. Making Rampart a character study is a wise move and Harrelson carries it all on his shoulders with aplomb and infusing the character with a lot of pathos and likability in spite of the inner darkness that very clear is present.
On the surface, you might say that if you like The Shield, Dark Blue, Street Kings, Bad Lieutenant and Port of Call New Orleans then you’ll see much that is familiar to you here, and you’ll likely enjoy Rampart. A person less familiar with these types of cop stories could really go either way but will probably engage better due to not being conversant in the sorts of shorthand all such stories employ.
Ice Cube is sort of ridiculous and somehow unbelievable, though I can totally buy a street-talking L.A. DA agent… it ain’t Ice Cube.
The film features many decent actors in middling to good performances. Most don’t get much screen-time but standouts are Robin Wright, Sigourney Weaver, and an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson. Ben Foster is in there as well, but can play his tweaked Vietnam vet in his sleep, and Steve Buscemi’s minimal role as the District Attorney at the center of the investigations into Rampart is a riff on his petulant-authoritative trademark in Boardwalk Empire.
It’s interesting that the best performances, aside from Harrelson’s, all come from women. A huge amount of this movie is, subtly and otherwise, about Brown’s relationship to and treatment of women. Of all the fucked up stuff he does, thinks, and says it’s the stuff directed at women which is most damning but also most redeeming.
Rampart is not a plot-intensive film. Brown is an officer in the Rampart station, infamous in 1999 (the year this takes place) for the Rodney King assault and tons of demonstrations, riots, etc especially against police. Brown is a throwback cop, a headcracker, and he gets himself into situations that are squarely in dirty cop territory but is also a department scapegoat, getting caught on tape beating down a guy who seconds before crashed a car into his squad cruiser only to smack him with a door and run off when Brown checks on him. Because he’s pretty canny about the law, having attempted to some degree to become a lawyer, Brown is able to talk his way out of problems and play to the trouble the LAPD is in to take some of the heat off. But as the fees mount and his home-life worsens amidst the controversy, Brown gets more desperate and self-destructive. So more than a plot, there’s through-line that the narrative follows with nearly every scene showing some shade of Brown’s character or delivering on the cause/effect nature of his choices.
Brie Larson? Brie Larson!
Brown’s primary redeeming quality is deeper than the enjoyment of his wit and cockiness, which Harrelson also seems to be having fun with. The man really, really loves his two daughters. He doesn’t always express it very well, and he’s certainly no one’s idea of a model father, but his earnest love for them is often repaid with rejection and the film is heavily slanted in favor of him. His kids are understandably hurt by his lifestyle and choices and that’s totally fair, but it still rings of tragedy that his attempts to connect with them are almost always met with contempt especially from the oldest, Helen (Larson).
The other side of this is Brown’s insistence that his weird family stay together. See, he married two different women and had a daughter with each of them. The trouble is: they’re sisters. Like he says though, he married them subsequently not concurrently. He’s not a bigamist. He is no longer romantically involved with either but he still acts as a patriarch in some ways. He displays no abuse whether physical or verbal, but they treat him like a nuisance at best. Only Barb (Cynthia Nixon) shows much kindness, but it’s the condescending regard of a parent for a troublesome child. Catherine (Anne Heche) the other ex-sisterwife is way less forgiving. Between the two of them, Brown’s sleazy “can I sleep with you tonight?” (sort of his catch-phrase) line feels just pitiful and it’s on them that we first see him use the line. He has more success later, with other women, particularly Linda the defense lawyer (Wright).
Linda sort of gets Brown. At least at first?
Brown sees himself as a protector of women and it’s at least partially true. The event that got him his bad reputation, his alleged slaying of a serial date-rapist in ’87, is certainly (in his view) about being the father of two girls and a symbolic extension of his duty as a father and as a police officer. Justice, not the law, in other words. Though tarnished by his fairly liberal adherence to the law he’s supposed to abide, and certainly rough on women he encounters, there’s a sense that Brown’s self-image is or was at least partially fair. Perhaps, once, he was more the hero that he seems to think he is. There’s an extent to which the film seems to imply his environment has slowly but surely deranged him and produced this man. It’s easy to imagine a happier time where his home life wasn’t so fucked, when his kids didn’t hate him, and when Rampart was a bastion of law enforcement. In that time, Dave Brown might have been something of a hero.
There’s a lot of scenes with women to chew over in this movie. Brown is a serial womanizer and even tries to pick up Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) the IA caseworker (I think that’s what she is) who is supposed to figure out what to do with him. Brown gets a lot of traction out of being a vet and out of being a cop with a certain macho, throwback style, which is suffused with earnestness and not cheese (the balance of which is well within Harrelson’s wheelhouse). The thing is, though, he’s treating these women as a sort of band-aid for his own self-loathing, a state of mind that ramps up (pardon the unintentional pun) throughout the film until the quiet, resigned climax.
His scenes with his eldest daughter, especially, are complex. Helen seems to be a lesbian and while his reaction isn’t volatile and he certainly doesn’t reject her, Helen treats him like this is exactly what he is about. Maybe it’s the out-of-fashion jokes, insensitivity to women in general, or just some expectation for her own rejection. It matters, though, that we never actually see him acting homophobic. He just wants her to love and accept him. When he watches them all, his once-family, and she, outside for a smoke, shares a long and silent look with him, it kind of says everything by saying nothing at all. There’s something Helen wants from him that she isn’t getting and he is hopelessly confused about what that could be. That is the source, mundane as it is, of their particular dysfunction. He thinks it’s the truth, at one point, and his drunken confession to his daughters tragically misses the point that yes, he hasn’t preyed on good people, but he’s hurt the one he loves the most anyway. They are the collateral damage and he doesn’t see it.
The opening scene is perhaps the most telling about what kind of guy Brown is: he talks about how the LAPD was one a glorious thing and says, to a female probie, that it “turned into you”. He doesn’t mean women, though it’s easy to see his treatment of her (rough in general) as being about her sex/gender, but I don’t think it is. It’s about change and, while that doesn’t become clear until later, it sets the tone for the film.
It would be easy to focus on Brown as this singularity of antagonism. Especially for a female audience, his behavior is difficult to accept. I feel like trying to be dismissive about him based on the extent to which he is extreme or unacceptable is kind of missing the point.
Brown is a curmudgeon. He’s like somebody’s grandpa. Even though Helen calls him a bigot, racist, homophobe, sexist, etc… it isn’t really true. He tells Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) that he’s a misanthrope, which Helen also mentions, and this is much closer to the truth. He’s that old cynical dude who’s used to things being and working a certain way and reacts aggressively, perhaps violently, when they change. Most people have someone in their family like that and it’s a classic trope in tough guy jobs. Dennis Leary’s Tommy Gavin inRescue Me is basically the same as Brown except for the murdering. In other words, people like Brown are their own separate category and while they are lamentable and often objectionable, they are not entirely without humanity and thus irredeemable or impossible to sympathize with.
Through Brown, I think Rampart challenges some of the currently popular senses of political correctness and nice guy liberalism. Most people will knee-jerk recoil from a guy like Brown, but spending time with him reveals that he’s a human underneath it all and that’s a realization with certain value. A value that gives the relationship between us progressive types and a man like Brown a degree of sophistication beyond reflexive rejection or trendy revulsion.
Brown is a dark reflection that we need to confront, not hide from or dispel. In a larger way, the Rampart scandal and all such stories, especially about cops, are about exactly that.
His drunken bouts of paranoia sort of back up the way people keep treating him like a child or implying that he basically is one. Woody splash!