Dir. Oren Moverman
(2011, R, 105 min)

I wrote a review of Rampart that I didn’t publish, and having had the opportunity to see it twice, I’m glad I didn’t publish it, because my opinion has changed. The first time, I found it disjointed, with an excess of characters and subplots clogging up the works. Story points seemed ambiguous that shouldn’t have been, and relationships were vague. But the second time, I saw past the distractions and recognized at the heart of it a strong character study about a man whose tricks for getting by no longer serve him, and who thinks he’ll get away clean long after he’s sullied beyond repair.

Woody Harrelson gives an excellent performance as Dave Brown, an LAPD officer in 1999 whose personal misconduct gets tangled with a wider corruption scandal. What’s so interesting about him is his self-delusion; his crookedness is apparent, but so is his inflated sense of nobility and persecution. When faced with video evidence of him beating a civilian, he claims a vast conspiracy is trying to bring him down. He once made a failed attempt at a law career, but when defending himself to lawyers and superior officers he speaks in self-conscious legalese as if to demonstrate how good a lawyer he’d be if only the legal profession were lucky enough to have him. He’s a small man who thinks he’s big, and Harrelson, with his swaggering charisma and live-wire volatility, paints a clear picture of a braggart who has lost touch with reality.

However, as a director, Oren Moverman is an occasionally awkward stylist. There are drastic closeups that seem unnecessary, a scene at a sex party that works too hard at expressing internal chaos with external noise and frenzy, and one sequence in particular – a meeting between Dave, the district attorney (Steve Buscemi), and a department rep (Sigourney Weaver) – is filmed in continuous rotating shots that accomplish nothing but motion sickness.

One subplot is a nonstarter. It involves Robin Wright as Linda, a woman Dave picks up at a bar. “Tell me you’re not a lawyer,” Dave says to her playfully. “Okay, I’m not a lawyer,” she replies, in such an ironic way that it’s obvious to us she’s a lawyer, but later there’s an inexplicable scene of betrayal when she tells him the truth. Most of the scenes between Dave and Linda are inexplicable; they’re full of emotional turmoil that isn’t convincing because there’s no basis for it: they don’t know each other very well, don’t seem to like each other very much except as occasional sex partners, and otherwise aren’t involved in each other’s lives, so why the drama?

The film is shown almost entirely through Dave’s point of view, and I think the disjointedness I initially noted is a reflection of his transient lifestyle. He bounces between hotels, the houses he seems to occasionally live in with his children and two ex-wives – who are sisters – and the bedrooms of the women he meets for one-night-stands (or maybe two or three nights, if they’re unlucky). He sporadically meets with an old cop (Ned Beatty) who used to know his father. And he humors an injured war vet (Ben Foster) whose paranoia rivals his own. Dave has no stable center, no focus point. He lives from moment to moment, trying to tap dance his way around the consequences of his actions. He thinks everyone is out to get him. Maybe they are. Probably not. It doesn’t matter. His worst enemy is himself.