In the Los Angeles film noir “Rampart,” Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Dave Brown patrols the broiling-hot city hunting for bad guys. A Vietnam War veteran, Brown sees himself as a soldier and the streets as an urban jungle. He’s the cop of your worst nightmare: racist, alcoholic and prone to pummel a suspect with his baton first and ask questions later. He’s also reminiscent of the real-life Rampart scandal of the 1990s, in which dozens of LAPD officers in an anti-gang unit were accused of serious corruption, leading to convictions for such crimes as dealing drugs and planting evidence.
The drama, directed and co-written by Israeli-born filmmaker Oren Moverman, uses the Rampart scandal as a backdrop for a character study of Brown (Woody Harrelson), who refuses to mend his ways amid a changing LAPD and the disintegration of his family. Brown’s ex-wives (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), sisters who live next door to each other and mothers to his two daughters, are trying to kick him out of their garage.
And so he spirals downward into a kind of personal hell illuminated by scorching cinematography. Along the way, the camera claustrophobically frames his face in extreme close-up to spotlight his escalating turmoil and paranoia. “We wanted to get very, very close, so that the only other option is to literally get inside his brain,” Moverman, 45, said during a recent interview at a West Hollywood hotel. “You can even see the vein that is pop-pop-popping in his head.”
The tall, sturdily built Moverman came to “Rampart” when he was asked to rewrite a sprawling draft by the infamously hard-boiled Los Angeles crime novelist James Ellroy (“L.A. Confidential,” “The Black Dahlia”), whose gruff police characters are more often the good guys on the mean streets.
The two writers met over coffee in Ellroy’s favorite red booth at the Pacific Dining Car — a noirish spot west of downtown. Ellroy had the kind of tough persona typical of a character in his novels, Moverman recalled. He asked plenty of questions about the Israeli’s service as a paratrooper in the first Lebanon War and the First Intifadah: “James is very close to the police; he loves the stories, the capers that come out of that culture,” the filmmaker said.
“My favorite book of James’ is his memoir, ‘My Dark Places,’ in which he talks a lot about the rape and murder of his mother, when he was a 10-year-old boy,” Moverman added. “That [explains] how somebody could grow up fascinated with gruesome crime stories and siding with the police. ... I can totally understand what draws him to powerful male models of law and order and power.”
Moverman came to the script — and to its ideas about masculinity — from a very different perspective. He left his Israeli military service with a profound sense of how power can be abused, as well as how veterans can be scarred for life. His interest in how soldiers reintegrate into society was the subject of his well-received directorial debut, “The Messenger,” which won Moverman an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay and also starred Harrelson.
To continue probing these issues, Moverman turned the character of Dave Brown into a veteran of the Vietnam War: “The Israeli part of it is a fascination I have with exploring masculinity as it breaks apart,” he said. “If you’re raised in a culture that expects you to be brave, strong and powerful in your expression, and you realize it’s not doable because you’re a human being, it can eat you up from the inside. It’s an invitation to a breakdown, and Dave Brown is an accident that’s waiting to happen. He thinks his war experience is no longer part of him, but everything about him really is — in his militaristic belief in law enforcement as an expression of power, domination and occupation. It’s not only in his work life, but also in his private life. It’s the chip that’s in his head.”
Moverman helped prepare Harrelson for the role through discussions about post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related trauma: “Oren went through some heavy stuff …[in] Israel, so there was always something going on,” Harrelson said. “But he’ll never talk about his own experiences, and if you do bring it up, he’ll kind of sidestep the issue.”
“Oren is interested in these solitary male characters,” said actor Ben Foster, who starred in “The Messenger” and plays a homeless Gulf War veteran in “Rampart.” “He doesn’t judge them … and that’s his humanity, his pursuit of saying we don’t know where anybody’s been or where they’re going, but they are human beings.”
Moverman’s “Rampart” revisions elaborate upon Brown’s private world: “I wanted to explore questions such as, ‘What do you look like when you’re at home alone and nobody can see you act? What do you do with your emotions, and how do you deal with your personal relationships in a job that’s dirty? When you do bad things to bad people, how does that reflect on your domestic life, on your relationship with daughters, who look at their dad as the one shining example of masculinity?’ ” Moverman said.
Ellroy was tolerant of these changes to his screenplay. “It helped that I served in the Israeli military, I’m as tall as he is, and that it doesn’t appear automatically that he can beat me up — and I’m not kidding,” the director said. “He jokes about it, but he doesn’t respect everyone, and physicality is a big part of respect for him.”
In the movie, the impact of the Rampart scandal within the LAPD proves to be Brown’s undoing. After he is caught on tape beating a suspect, Rodney King style, a police investigation and getting the boot from his ex-wives prompt his decline. “He has an almost anorexic disdain for eating,” Moverman said. “His soul is corrupted to the point where his only sustenance is power and sex.”
Toward the end of the film, the harsh sunlight appears to burn out Brown’s image as he drives around the city. “It’s as if the sun is consuming him,” the director explained. “It’s like he’s driving into purgatory, and he’s condemned himself.”
“Rampart” opens Feb. 10.