You may recall that the last time Woody Harrelson and writer/director Oren Moverman got together they gave us the outstanding film The Messenger which was about a pair of soldiers having to deliver the bad news of soldiers’ deaths to their next of kin. Now they reteam for a gritty cop drama that has Harrelson taking the lead as a man whose past and present are causing his life to fall apart all around him
David Brown (Woody Harrelson) is a cop for the LAPD whose volatile nature has always been a problem for him. Several years ago, he was accused of murdering a date rapist and now he has been caught on camera viciously attacking a man who crashed into his police car. The LAPD is already embroiled in a tough scandal when this occurs, so the incident only serves to make things worse between the police and the public.
Meanwhile, things at home are not going particularly well for David either. His relationship with his wife and daughters has always been strained, but now this new incident threatens to tear him away from his family completely. In an attempt to help David out, an associate of his, Hartshorn (Ned Beatty), tells him of a high-stakes poker game that he can take down. However, this doesn’t go quite as planned when two armed gunmen show up at the game before he can act.
Rampart doesn’t end up having as much emotional punch to it as The Messenger did mainly because it feels as though the idea was not thought out to completion. Moverman and his co-writer, author James Ellroy, set up an interesting scenario in which any number of things can happen, but it never really develops beyond everything going wrong in David’s life.
To further confirm that the idea wasn’t thought out to its full extent, the film leaves us with an ambiguous ending. We have some notion where the main plot might go, among other threads, but nothing is resolved by the time the credits begin to roll, as though the writers decided not to have a third act for the film.
It’s an intriguing story while it lasts. David’s past is very sketchy and his present self-destructive behavior seems like its leading him to an unstoppable doom. He has little to take solace in. His daughters will barely talk to him, and even when they do, the longest conversation his older daughter has with him includes her calling him a racist, womanizer, chauvinist, and misanthrope, to name a few.
The few advances in the plot, including the aftermath of the poker game, makes you wish that they had done more with the characters and the plot It makes you think it’s all leading to something profound for David, possibly a life-changing decision, or at least actions that will force him to reevaluate the way he has been living his life, but instead just cuts off, leaving the character in the mess that he’s created.
What keeps the movie engaging for as long as it was is the amazing performance by two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson. Here’s another portrayal that was easily worthy of another Oscar nod. Some people tend to think of Harrelson as the goofy type of character he plays in films like Zombieland or Friends with Benefits, but when he tries his skills at drama, he shows that he’s one to be reckoned with. His last collaboration with Moverman was more than enough proof of that.
Again, there are some things to like about the film. It’s well-made, creates an unsettling atmosphere, and even starts to break into emotional territory in the final act (I hesitate to say “third” for the reasons stated above). Of course, there’s also Harrelson’s performance to marvel at, but the sudden ending doesn’t do the film any favors, not after waiting through what felt like the writers stalling more development until the conclusion. That’s where Rampart ultimately becomes a letdown.