A World Sans Salvation: Oren Moverman’s Rampart

Reviewed in this essay: Rampart, directed by Oren Moverman, written by Moverman and James Ellroy. Starring Woody Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Foster, Anne Heche, Cynthia Nixon, Steve Buschemi, and Ned Beatty. Running Time: 108 minutes. Now playing at the Carleton Cinema.

Woody Harrelson as a bad bad man in Rampart

There are two ways to think about director Oren Moverman’s film Rampart: it is either a unrelentingly gripping journey into the mind of a man in absolute moral crisis, or it is a sensationalistic orgy of misogyny, violence, and racism that leaves the viewer numb. Whether you decide to love or hate the film, to watch it means to spend two hours with officer Dave Brown, played with meticulous ferocity by Woody Harrelson. Brown is a terrifyingly riven man who marches around late 90’s Los Angeles looking for trouble. The chain smoking, pill popping Brown humiliates rookie female police officers, beats up wheel-chair bound informants, frames and executes street criminals, picks up vulnerable women in bars so as to physically dominate them in his bedroom, and blackmails superiors into keeping him on the force. The story ostensibly picks up steam around one overzealous assault Brown commits that is caught on tape, thus beginning a departmental investigation into the entire range of nefarious deeds in his life. Yet the scenario seems not much more than a pretext for Moverman to document just how much violence Brown can inflict before he obliterates himself in a death drive of epic proportions.

The witnesses and victims of Brown’s descent are made up of a bevy of notable, yet woefully underused, supporting talent. We thus catch fleeting glimpses of Steve Buschemi and Sigourney Weaver as police department higher ups trying to reign Brown in; the hushed grandeur of Ned Beatty as a retired cop enabling Brown’s violence; an existentially weary Robin Wright as one of Brown’s many desperate nighttime lovers; and Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as two of Brown’s ex-wives, who also happen to be sisters (don’t ask, that plot point is complicated enough for those who’ve seen the film).

Give these supporting actors credit: in the snippets of screen time they have they do their best to impart a sense of gritty humanity to their roles. And yet their efforts cannot but be overshadowed by Harrelson’s scalpel-jawed Brown, whose ferocious hatred seems to render everything else around him mute. And yet aside from wallowing in the collateral violence of a life gone astray, what can an audience take away from this film? In a post 2008 world of neo-liberal crisis, does this film do anything for us, as we try to cope with all the quotidian frailties of our far less sensationalized lives? Moverman has created a slick, hard-hitting character study, but in the film’s rush to reveal the downfall of one man, it provides precious little balm for the social downfall of us all.

Searching for salvation in Rampart

The film admits to us as much. In its most poignant scene, Brown faces his two daughters and finally, after years of obfuscation, admits to them what he is: a murdering wretch. In Harrelson’s most heartbreaking moment, he tells his daughters that he wishes he could say something different, that he could give them a way out. Yet he can’t. In his world, as in our own, there is no easy salvation: only the pain of violent consequences.

About the author

Mark McConaghy

A doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at the University of Toronto, Mark McConaghy researches aesthetics, politics, and the dynamics of cultural change. He is co-editor of The Fourteenth Floor, a collaborative space for cultural and political critique.

By Mark McConaghy