Thursday, 15 December 2011

Oscar blog - Why I disliked Rampart

Woody Harrelson is too good for this.

Given that the film isn't fresh enough in my memory and that I'm essentially riffing off notes from my screening experiences at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, I find it especially surprising that Rampart - Oren Moverman's follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut The Messenger - is still lingering somewhere in the more recognizable parts of my head. It looks as though Woody Harrelson will be up for Oscar nods this season, and while I think his performance is one of particular gusto, he's ultimately overshadowed by a dreary and run-of-the-mill plot.

Harrelson's performance is one reminiscent of Denzel Washington's in Training Day: the role of a tough, streetwise cop who bears very little likable or endearing qualities that flexes the actor's emotional range but is stuck in a position of arrested development within a yawningly mediocre plot. For every moment the audience is drawn into the complicated psyche of a racist, sexist, violent, and troubled mind, they are spat back out by ridiculousness. I can vividly remember a board meeting sequence in which tempers flair between Harrelson, Sigourney Weaver and Steve Buscemi, and though the scene is acted with a heartfelt passion it all is laid to waste by jarring and completely unnecessary camera movement. I understand that Moverman is trying to visually capture the tensions in the room, but it makes the proceedings feel forced. If you have powerful actors who can hold the story themselves, even for that one instant, just take your hands off the camera and the editing console. You'll have a much better movie for it.

While Harrelson certainly has the dramatic range and emotional flexibility to throw himself into a role and succeed, this picture is ultimately tampered by its constant "there are no black and white issues" and grey areas. Throwing all these obstacles at this man - not to mention making him overly detestable - turn what could have been a Harvey Keitel inspired performance of a bad cop driven to some form of salvation into a one-note envelopment of 'badness' that is sprinkled with some faux visual finesse just to get an Oscar nod. Looking at this film in comparison to Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant , there are many aspects that illustrate how a film like this could have balanced its B-movie storyline with A-movie actors. Ferrara took a new junk aesthetic in which he melded an over-the-top crime drama (some of the scenes border on exploitation trash) with a harrowing focus on drug addiction and emotional despair, and he made it work. Rampart, on the other hand, is intent on going the Fuqua way of plot over narrative: show everyone how much of a jerk the protagonist is, surround him with things to bigot against (hello two wives and sexually confused daughter), and throw in some tension. While it doesn't devolve into an action film like Training Day did, it's still a wildly incomplete mess of a movie that can't decide whether it wants to be a story-driven melodrama or a character-centric rumination on certain aspects of the human condition.

I'm not providing a rating here, but I don't think the Academy should waste much time with this one.


  1. Rampart is probably doomed at the Oscars, because its distributor went for the idiotic "limited one-week qualifying run" release strategy at a time when police brutality is as resonant a national topic as it's been since Amadou Diallo.

    But that said, I like this movie quite a bit and I do think you're mischaracterizing it somewhat, especially when you suggest that it leans at all towards melodrama. This clearly seems to me like a classical 70s-style art-house character study - there's piles of incident here, but there's no larger overarching narrative beyond erosion of dude's soul, and the movie is selectively opaque in ways that refute the traditional melodrama tag (why, for example, is this conservative fascist OK with the two-wife arrangement?).

    I also think the central performance and the movie as a whole are much smarter than something like Training Day. Denzel Washington in that movie thrives primarily because he's just a bigger "King Kong"-sized badass than anyone else - there's nothing more complex than "survival of the fittest". Harrelson's character, though, survives primarily because of his mastery of the institution he inhabits - his in-depth legal mastery, his network of contacts throughout his department, his ability to read and adapt to political shifts (all of which crumble over the movie's course, natch). This is a movie about how institutional dogma becomes personal ethics, and about how any meaningful change in one is inextricably linked to the other. The fact that Harrelson's alive and a hollow shell of himself instead of redeemed at the end is a spit in the face to the LAPD's suggestions that they've at all "reformed" by casting out a few bad apples.

    (Also Harrelson is obv great, and James Ellroy's writing is probably better. And point taken about that one boardroom scene, but you make it sound like Bazin was opposed to, like, cinematic style as a whole.)

  2. You bring up some interesting and completely valid points of contention, Raj. I won't lie, this film has been somewhat of a personal demon for me. Even while writing this at the wee hours of the morning, I was thinking that there had to have been something in the film that resonated with me, but my memories of the picture were rather harsh.

    Your point about the film playing out like a classic 70s character study is definitely the one that most caught my attention, and the more I think of a film like Serpico or other Lumet dramas the more this picture seems to fall into place. However, I really wish this would have gotten a bigger push so I could watch it again! I don't have access to all of these awesome screeners you guys do!!!

  3. Bro, if you want some (online links of highly questionable legality to) screeners, I got you.

  4. Liked the way you present your passion for movies.
    Great comments.