This is a reprint of our review from TIFF.
"Everything you learned at the Academy is bullshit." That's the sage bit of wisdom Date Rape Dave (Woody Harrelson, and we'll get to his cop moniker in a moment) gives a new trainee in the opening frames of Oren Moverman's "Rampart," a searing and riveting look at a crooked cop's decay amidst the crumbling LAPD at the turn of the millennium.
The year is 1999 and the Rampart Division of the LAPD is under serious fire. The word "corrupt" doesn't even begin to describe the charges being laid against officers in the division that are accused of having ties to gangs, drugs, robbery and murder. Dave Brown may not be based on a real cop, but he's Moverman's surrogate for everything endemic in the department, and his unfortunate nickname is a reference to an incident early in his career in which a serial date rapist wound up dead at his hands. Though any serious charges were dismissed, the stigma of the case weighs on him like an albatross around his neck. But two decades into his career, that event seems completely innocent compared to what he's mixed in with now.
Casually driving his police car through a local barrio, Dave is randomly side-swiped by a car. When he gets out to investigate, the driver of the car attempts to knock Dave over with his driver's side door and then makes a run for it. A chase ensues on foot, and once Dave finally catches up with driver – who happens to be Latino – he unleashes a brutal beating on him with his club, one that is unfortunately captured on video. And within 24 hours, the tape is seemingly on a loop on every cable channel, with Dave becoming the latest black eye for the LAPD whose prestige – what little of it there is left – is eroding day by day. But that's just the tip of the iceberg in a series of events that will find Harrelson's character slowly painting himself into a corner as the lies and deceptions employed to keep his dirty name in the clear for so long begin to catch up with him.
As Dave hustles to get out from under the scandal that has embroiled his department and his life, he bounces off an array of intriguing characters. Most of these are small roles, but it speaks to just how good Moverman's script is that he gets to fill them with some great talent. Sigourney Weaver as his LAPD attorney, Steve Buscemi as the mayor, Ice Cube as an internal affairs investigator, and Moverman's "The Messenger" co-star Ben Foster as a homeless drunk, all shine in their brief appearances, and their presence only helps to embolden the film's narrative texture. The continually underrated Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon are excellent in larger turns as Dave's wives in addition to Ned Beatty, the struggling cop's direct connection to the much slimier underbelly of the police department. As Dave ricochets between a family that is finally seeing him for who he really is and the LAPD who want take away the only job he's ever been good at, Moverman's artistry isn't just found in the rich world he populates, but also in how he chooses to shoot it.
"I'm not a racist, I hate all people equally." That's how Dave explains his actions late in the film, but what we realize is that he also hates himself, and it's that self-loathing that is perhaps the most dangerous weapon he has at his disposal. "Rampart" is not a criticism of the LAPD or officers in general, but instead is something far more fascinating. It's an exploration of corruption taking root and completely overpowering an individual beyond all recognition to anyone in his life. It's a harrowing journey, and while everyone around him may have given up on him, as we spy Date Rape Dave in the final moments of the film contemplating his own death, a small ray of light appears, one that may give him a reason to live. And it's this moment, a brave choice by Moverman, that elevates "Rampart" from being a very good movie into a great film. [A-]