Woody Harrelson is Dave Brown, an L.A. cop. on the force in the 1990's. The force is still dealing full time with the fallout from the Rampart corruption scandal. Many officers including the former chief are gone and the Department is dealing with lawsuits justified and unjustified on a daily basis. You wouldn't know that, however, by watching Dave Brown. He conducts himself as if nothing ever happened, conducting off the book shake downs and random harassment at will. His biggest concern initially is that his rookie partner ordered french fries but isn't going to eat them. "I don't like fries." she tells him. "Well, you shouldn't have ordered them, then." He assures her that not eating her fries will ensure she stays on probation. When she obliges and starts eating them, he investigates further "Did anyone ever discipline you?" After hearing that she's never met her father, he relents and throws her fries away. He illustrates his own method of racial profiling and "lead generation." for his partner, who questions his methods. He reminds her "Everything you learned in the Academy... it's bullshit." At the station he asks for a warrant for the questionable lead on a crack house, he obtained. When questioned about the lack of background on the address, he cites case law. His partner asks him if he knows all the cases he mentions. He tells here, "If I don't, I just make it up."
Harrelson's family life is an interesting one. He has married two sisters, Barbara (Cynthia Nixon) and Helen (Brie Larson) "consecutively." and had a daughter with each one. Somehow he's managed to keep them living next door to each other, a situation which would be convenient if it worked out like he imagined. He has no compunctions about hitting on one sister for sex, and being turned down, he propositions the other. She also turns him down. Dave Brown's act has gotten old for them. His daughters have a little more tolerance, the younger more than the older. We learn pretty quickly that Dave has reached a point where he's powerless concerning his family. He asks his older daughter about a collage she's put on the wall which contains a woman's heel coming down on a man's face, with the word "Cunt" prominently featured. "What's it all about?" he asks, clearly wishing it taken down. "Figure it out." she tells him. The collage stays up and being shut down on two counts, Dave heads to the bar to find somebody else.
He finds a girl who's "into cops" She coaxes the "handle" his partners use out of him to take a shortcut in getting to know him. She's initially horrified when he tells her his handle is "Date Rape." He quickly assures her that this doesn't refer to his activities directly, but that he "may or may not have" killed a serial date rapist at some point in the past. He gets her in bed, which sadly ends with her shrugging and saying "oh, well."
Dave is patrolling in his squad car, when another car runs right into him. He gets out of his car to approach the other driver, but gets hit with the door before the driver starts running. Dave gives chase, catches the man, and then beats him senseless with his billy club. He doesn't realize that he's being filmed and his actions are almost instantly on TV everywhere. He's asked to explain himself to the Assistant D.A. Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver) who starts their conversation, asking if he's thought of retirement. He answers by illustrating a public relations nightmare fore her. "So you have thought of it." she replies. Dave's position is that he was responding to "assault with a deadly weapon." And, he sticks to that.
At the bar, looking for companionship he meets defense attorney, Linda Fentress (Robin Wright) while the TV is showing the beating incident. He has the feeling that she was looking for him. She hates what she does, she tells him, putting criminals back on the streets, but she respects what he did, killing that rapist. The two start a volatile back and forth, based on cheap thrills, enmity, and perhaps career goals.
He soon meets with his mentor figure, shady retired cop, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty.) Hartshorn is more crooked than Dave, although he's much better connected. "Stick to your assault with a deadly weapon story." he advises, and informs him that he's become a target. Hartshorn has a code and he won't name names, however. He does tell Dave he'll try to take some of the heat off of him, and gives him a tip on a backroom card game that should have a lot of money present. Someone else has heard about it too, and as Dave is casing the game, he watches it get robbed. He chases down the robbers killing one of them, and letting another one go with some of the money. He stashes the cash, plants a gun and then calls it in.
Of course this brings him more attention. He finds IA tailing him in the form of Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) who quite eagerly tells Dave he's going to take him down. Very soon it's clear that Timkins isn't all talk. He has witnesses who saw him outside the card game, the gun the dead man had was used before in a similar situation. At the same time, Barbara tells him they're selling the houses and getting away from him. Dave gets his lawyers on the case, telling him the most important thing is that he remains a cop, although they can't understand this. Hartshorn becomes less helpful, so much so that Dave assumes he's now working against him. "You know the policy. I don't name names." Hartshorn reminds him. Resolving to wash his hands of Dave, he tells him "Everyone changes, but not you."
His oldest daughter, Helen tracks him down at the station to talk. She tells him "You're a dinosaur, Date Rape. You're a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic clearly, or maybe you don't like yourself." He responds with a joke about her sexuality, and of course she takes off."
The pressure ratchets up, Assistant D.A. Confrey, who had asked him off the record about the "Date Rape" murder reminds him that the murdered mans wife went crazy, and his daughters ended up abused in foster homes. Confronted in his hotel room by both of his daughters who have come to drop off some of his clothes. He tells them he knows why they came. They're wondering about the things they hear about him. He provides little comfort, telling them "Everything you've heard and more, it's all true."
What About It?
Rampart isn't a conventional story, as much as it is a peek into the life of a man who has failed everyone around him in every way imaginable. he's a bad cop, a bad father, husband, friend, lover, and everything else you can name. He lives for the power that comes along with the badge, and with every abuse of that power, he feels he has more. His character, would be easier to deal with if he were simply a mindless thug, but he isn't. He's more resourceful than he lets on. Although we don't know how much of the case law he quotes is real and how much made up, he does have a sense of what will help him in most situations.
His home life is an interesting contrast to his cop life. His presence at home seems to matter very little to anyone, except that they've grown tired of being associated with the mess he's making all around him. As tough as he is with his "scumbags" on the street, women seem to render him powerless (in more ways than one) Dave Brown seems to have lost touch with the idea of consequences. The fact that he remains on the force after the Rampart scandal removed so much corruption makes him feel invincible. When speaking with the Assistant D.A., he refers to himself as "the only one who gets it." a notion which makes her laugh. Even while he's displayed endlessly on TV as an example of police brutality, he thinks nothing of staging a shooting and planting a gun to steal some money. To Dave Brown, that's what the job is, his every action is acceptable because he's not a "scumbag" but a cop. Dave doesn't seem to know his own agenda, he's instinctual just doing what he does, when he gets to it.
Dave Brown is a departure from the classic dirty cop in that he isn't driven by being a junkie, or money that comes in from being "on the take." Dirty money is certainly ok with him, but he's not chasing it, just taking it when it's in his path. He enjoys being a cop, but his idea of what a cop is includes every corrupt thing he can imagine, retroactively. He clearly feels much pride over the "Date Rape" incident. He can't help but smirk when he gives his "can neither confirm nor deny" line. His spin on the incident varies. On one occasion, he says he did it to help him meet girls, and on another he says it was because he has daughters. In his mind those things could both be true as well as any number of other explanations. He's clearly not, however defending the honor of women in any way. Much like the case law he quotes, he likely killed the guy, and then came up with the justification afterwards. The important thing about the incident is that we're told it was premeditated. Unlike the shooting of the robbers at the card game (who possibly did have guns) the Date Rape incident was a calculated murder. But with Brown, premeditated murder is something else that's Ok because he did it, and he's a cop. You can't predict what Dave Brown will do. He's the cop who robs you after you pay him off, simply because he can.
I'm sure that many are unhappy with the film's conclusion, as everything is not wrapped up. We leave Dave in the middle with everything still closing in around him. But, for what the movie is, I think it makes sense. Things are catching up with Dave every day, more and more. He doesn't change, although everything around him does, leaving him further and further behind. We glimpse Dave considering ending it all. We see that he's unable to eat without throwing up. Dave Brown is someone who's miserable in his own skin. And given his behavior that revulsion is contagious. He knows what he is, and won't ever apologize for it, not even to make his daughters sleep a little easier. Does he hate himself? Probably, but he loves himself too, too much to make the slightest attempt at change. Harrelson's performance here is brilliant. In a way, he's more frightening than he was in Natural Born Killers, because at least Mickey was in love and wanted something. Dave Brown isn't capable of either love or wanting anything. We're given a character that's beyond redemption, but not one without empathy. We hope he'll change and get out of his own way, although at the same time, we know he never will. That's likely a story his wives have been through many times, and he himself must live with constantly, although never really entertaining it.
The supporting cast is terrific as well. Brie Larson is a great Helen, conflicted and resentful, but astute. She's determined to tell her father what he is, although a bit disappointed to find that he's already well aware. Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon both perform well, for the small amount of screen time they have. We get their disgust and boredom both at the same time. Robin Wright's performance is great and I think a good mirror for Dave. In her own way, she's as volatile as he is, although her position is safer as it keeps her within the law. Sigourney Weaver is a good choice as the assistant D.A. She isn't impressed with Dave, but nonetheless can't help but be puzzled. She doesn't understand how a man like this can exist. He's like a Rubik's cube, although one that is damaging the department. Ben Foster puts in a good show as a homeless alcoholic, who Dave thinks to use, but later regrets. I enjoyed watching Ned Beatty also as the only character in the movie sleazier than Dave Brown. Beatty has a gift for these parts.
Moverman's direction is quite clear about our focus. Dave Brown is the movie, and we only see it as it relates to him. With James Ellroy and Moverman as writers, it's not surprising that the details presented are smart and serve the story. We're shown people as they act, everything already in motion. All of their troubles are not spelled out in so many words, but we can find their histories in how they talk and deal with each other. Dave Brown is a terror on the streets, but at home he's a guest at the dinner table. His oldest daughter get angry when Dave pats her hair. "Don't touch me," she says "Say something." We see the look on his youngest daughter's face, finally seeing what her father is, and it says much more than when she turns to her sister and tells her they should go. In Dave himself we can see the whole story, and wherever it ends in the film, anyone can figure out that Dave's story doesn't end well. When Dave and Linda Fentress engage, we don't know where it will go this time, but that both will regret it and likely do it again. We also know everything is not on the table, but we fill it in with what happens next.