Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blue Collar Shame

'Early in the morning we'll be startin' out
Some honeys will be coming along
We're loading up our woody…'
(Surfin' Safari - The Beach Boys, 1964)

A tenuous quote, to be sure, but HOW loaded down is Woody Harrelson in Oren Moverman's Rampart? However much it is, one thing's for sure: the boy's come a long way since being the butt of Ted Danson's jokes in Cheers.

Set two years after the infamous titular scandal which implicated 70+ LAPD police officers in widespread corruption charges and almost ruined their reputation forever, Rampart concerns itself with the (mis)deeds of Dave 'Date Rape' Brown, and his attempts to overcome his (mainly) self-created adversities and keep both an unconventional family and a lifelong career in the force together.

It's beautifully shot, with digital photography rendering the colours as glowing orange interiors and greenish exterior neon. And performances are consistently great - especially from Ben Foster as wheelchair bound vagrant. Harrelson himself (who apparently really suffered for his art) is possibly the most serious we've ever seen him: his gaunt frame (he looks like he lost several stone to effectively capture the martini-swilling, food-avoiding wired-ness needed for the part) oozing the kind of slow-dawning realisation of a man who's spent a lifetime lying to himself about how badly he behaves.

With James Ellroy as screenwriting co-pilot with Moverman, you can probably guess that this is NOT going to be America's answer to Hot Fuzz. In fact, if any parallel can be made with recent cinema, it's with Steve McQueen's Shame. Like the arbitrary divisions of USA hip hop, this is, if you like, the Westside equivalent to Michael Fassbender's Eastside descent into a fleshy hell.

Except that this time, as the narrative moves on, the singles bar indulgence in flesh declines - only to be replaced with pharmaceuticals, voyeurism, erratic behaviour… and cigarettes. God, how MANY cigarettes did Harrelson smoke in this film? Every scene comes with a Strand moment, even though by the denouement Woody is very much alone with his habit. And unlike Fassbender's blingy uptown broker lifestyle, here we're made all too aware of the importance (and lack) of money. A fact that made me like this film more.

Shown from the off to be a policeman for whom, 'illegal's just a sick bird', Brown is a lifer, bullying female rookies, using excessive force in pursuit of leads and with a moniker derived from a previous incident where he's alleged to have murdered a man for his history of violence to women. Ah, there you have it - the classic Ellroy trope - misguided tough guys who defend women for the wrong reasons. Remember Russell Crowe breaking that chair in L.A. Confidential? This is a world where despite the obvious wrongdoing going down, men can still justify their actions by recourse to some faded (mythical?) familial moral code, long since obliterated by shoddy circumstance.

This moral code has shoehorned Dave's two ex-wives (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche) into being neighbours, each with one daughter apiece and (confusingly) sisters. It's here that the shit gets real for Dave. Divorced from both he still attempts to woo them (unsuccessfully). His couch dwelling days are numbered as what's perceived as a racist beating by him is captured on national TV and his past crimes start to revisit him with increasing intensity. In all senses, this is a study of a man who's fast wearing out his welcome.

The observation of his awkward relationship with a teenage daughter exploring her own crisis of sexuality mirrors his problematic relationship with his superiors. This is a man trading on his Vietnam and police service record: smart-mouthed and (another classic Ellroy trait) a failed lawyer, eloquent in legal terminology and unafraid to use it in his precocious and misguided defence.

if anything, Rampart is about self-delusion. Dave's a man who's eventually forced to admit his own culpability while still clinging to the notion that he's only doing what everyone else has. In a sense this is true, Rampart certainly doesn't overly simplify - the most surprising thing that happened in the screening I attended was the comic effect of the videoed beating: almost everyone laughed at that point.

And while his descent into rampant paranoia is tempered with a justifiable sense that, just maybe, there ARE darker motives at work here, plotting his downfall as a distraction from the greater storm ripping through the department, it doesn't stop you being appalled by his confusion. This tangle of morals and misdeeds, even leads to him, at one point, inappropriately coming on to the DA, played by Sigourney Weaver. Ouch...

But ultimately, as paternal family friend (and equally corrupt ex-cop) Ned Beatty points out: maybe it's just because no one likes a cop who, by his own admission, isn't racist but 'hates everyone equally'. Either way, like Shame, there's no tidy end to this very human drama - Dave drives off towards long dark night of the soul, cigarette glowing in the darkening night, and all we're left to comfort us with is the twinkling cityscape. Excellent stuff...

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