September 13, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: “Rampart”


Oren Moverman’s first film as a director, The Messenger, was a beautifully contained, emotionally detailed story about soldiers assigned to deliver tragic news to the families of the deceased.  In his new film RAMPART, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, Moverman is more ambitious and, unfortunately, a victim of the sophomore jinx.
This time, Moverman co-wrote his film with celebrated novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, among many others), and for better or worse, the script is very much an Ellroy work.  The title refers to the Rampart Division police scandal of 1999, but other than thematically, that’s very much in the background of the story.  The film concerns Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson, also star of The Messenger), a classic Ellroy protagonist:  a mix of good and bad cop–utterly dedicated, but prone to violence and heedless of the consequences of his actions.  He has a dismal personal life–his informal version of a Big Love lifestyle, having married first one sister (Cynthia Nixon) and then the other (Anne Heche), and now living with both–is falling apart.  And he’s not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.  
Like many other Ellroy protagonists before him, Dave is the victim of a shadowy conspiracy taking place far above his head.  And as in many Ellroy novels, that conspiracy stays shadowy, complex and mostly undefined.  The idea seems to be that Dave is being made a pawn so that those in power can condemn him and distract the public from the larger Rampart scandal, but that’s never confirmed or explained.  Similarly, characters turn up enigmatically–especially Robin Wright in an incomprehensible role as a woman Dave picks up one night in a bar–and their roles remain frustratingly opaque, except that they cause trouble for Dave.  The movie becomes busier and emptier as it goes along, with an inconclusive ending that resolves absolutely nothing.
It doesn’t help that Moverman has come very late to the “urban thriller means jittery handheld camera” party, and the movie, powered by Bobby Bukowski’s derivative digital photography, is downright annoying to watch.  (If the concept was to use that style because in 1999 it would have been state of the art, it’s a stylization that doesn’t work.)  Nor that the grittiness of the subject matter is constantly upstaged by the all-star cast (Look, it’s Sigourney Weaver!).  
Even in these less than ideal circumstances, Moverman retains his skill with actors.  Harrelson is playing a more familiar character than the one he had in The Messenger (he’s a more victimized version of Vic Mackey in The Shield), but he plays the role with all-out conviction and sly humor.  Most of the supporting actors–Weaver, Wright, Nixon,, Heche, Steve Buscemi as a weaselly DA, Ben Foster (also from The Messenger) as a homeless informant, Ice Cube as a version of Mary McDonnell’s IA cop from The Closer, Ned Beatty as Dave’s wired-in and possibly untrustworthy mentor, Brie Larson as Dave’s bitter daughter–get some pungent dialogue from Ellroy and Moverman, and run with it.  On a scene by scene basis, the picture is often enjoyable, even if the pieces never fit together.
Rampart is a failure, but it’s a quality one; Moverman aimed high and missed.  In his next try, he’d be better off developing his own vision than subordinating it to that of another creative mind, even one as talented as James Ellroy’s.  This time around, he got lost in the labyrinthine streets of Ellroy’s personal fictional city.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."