Though Rampart is a film focused on racism, misogyny and brutal violence and what happens when those ugly human behaviors are merged with an officer of the law — someone assigned to protect society from those very things — I couldn’t help thinking of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive, especially at the very beginning and very end.
Both Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), the main character in Rampart, and Ryan Gosling’s Driver are alpha males plunked down into modern times as if from a different era. They drive around the streets of Los Angeles meting out their self-defined (and often perverse) sense of justice, but they also have a very tangible price. The Driver will take you anywhere you want to go within a very limited time frame. Dave Brown will do anything for his non-traditional family, his two ex-wives, Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Catherine (Anne Heche) who also happen to be sisters and his two daughters, Helen (Brie Larson) and Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky).
The difference, of course, is that even though The Driver is a mercenary and a violent killer, you root for him. He’s the antihero to Dave Brown’s villain, and, you know, that makes sense because Drive is a fairy tale in a way, some sort of modern fantasy Western, while Rampart is very much not.
Set in the 1990s and with the backdrop of a very real corruption scandal of the same name, Rampart is, in essence, a chronicle of the disintegration of Brown’s life. Brown’s division is embroiled in a cinematized version of the real Rampart scandal, and as the alleged (but never proven!) murderer of a serial rapist years ago — an act that earns him the nickname “Date Rape” Dave — he is already under intense scrutiny. It’s deserved scrutiny, to be clear. Brown doesn’t hesitate to vocalize racist beliefs and he seems to have no qualms about bending or outright breaking the rules to get the proverbial perp.
And it’s scrutiny that is only ratcheted up when he is caught on tape savagely subduing a suspect. When Brown ends up suspended for the beating and watching the playback of his shameful actions on the evening news at a local bar, you can feel everything begin to unravel. On comes the drug abuse, the financial and legal problems, the looming threats to his already tenuous home life. This is the real world, not the Driver’s bloody fantasy, and Brown’s bill is long overdue in many ways.
At the risk of spoiling things, Drive and Rampart end in similar fashion; they are not quite the same in a few ways, mostly there is less ’80s-inspired synth and satisfaction in the latter. Endings left mostly to the interpretation of the viewer can be highly effective or they can leave an empty, incomplete feeling with the viewer — it’s very rare that a movie finds some middle ground between the two — and in the case of Rampart, I felt like I was left holding the bag.
Actually, it wasn’t just the ending. Rampart had all the makings of an indie classic, but felt incomplete from start to finish. I can’t pin down just what was missing.
The subject matter, to me at least, is interesting, especially since it felt like it could partially erase the many, many wrongs done in Crash. The cast is outstanding. The captivating Harrelson is always a good start, but surrounding him with the likes of Heche, Nixon, Ned Beatty, Ben Foster, Robin Wright, Ice Cube and sprinkling in cameos from Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver gave director Oren Moverman an embarrassment of riches with which to work. Moverman has a good, though limited, track record in his own right; if you haven’t seen 2009′s The Messenger, also starring both Harrelson and Forster, do yourself a favor and rectify that immediately. Definitely slot it ahead of Rampart in your viewing queue no matter what. It has its moments, but the full package just never materialized — the story always felt half-told.
Screening Room Rating: 7 out of 10