Oren Moverman’s Rampart begs to be described as raw, from its unsettling picture of routine police corruption in 1999 Los Angeles to the sun-burnt handheld photography to the James Ellroy authorial stamp. For a while Woody Harrelson does find a groove as a hardheaded, poised cop sticking to his guns after being videotaped beating a hit-and-run perp, but Moverman (who handled Harrelson well in The Messenger) gets irretrievably sidetracked by an uncontrollable urge for bogus dramatic flare-ups and forced visual 70s-isms.
The movie’s game is to play with audience expectations through Harrelson’s brutally cynical cop, Dave Brown, who has the loonily entertaining reasoning of a libertarian blog. Dave’s loyalty to cop creed is true even as he commits outrages (all the more outrageous for being sloppily executed) to cover his tracks. At home, his irrelevance imminent, Dave prowls through a two-mother household (sisters he has married in turn, played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon) complete with rebellious gay older daughter; at night, he picks up a victim’s rights lawyer (typically attention-holding Robin Wright) at a bar, conflicts be damned.
That overloaded home life is the first clue that co-writers Moverman and Ellroy are so eager to pile on fraught material that the film loses a feel for lived reality. Confrontations and camera stunts come to feel unmotivated, animated primarily by the urge to throw the audience off balance, even accounting for Dave’s unhinging as police brass seem to tire of immunity and his evasions. While Dave’s mid-rainfall pool harangue of Wright’s lawyer and a deposition disfigured by ostentatious pans are laughable enough, Moverman also manages to stage a red-lit underground clubbing sequence that’s more ridiculous than the one in Shame. Even Harrelson’s likability, with the actor sparing with the usual grinning swagger, can’t save the movie from its own showboating.