Sunday, March 11, 2012
Oren Moverman’s film The Messenger was an excellent examination of the military’s distorted contours, focusing on a young sergeant assigned to casualty notification, accompanying an older captain who informs the next of kin about fatalities. I included it here on my list of my favourites of 2010, calling it “very finely crafted.” Moverman’s new film Rampart might make the equivalent list for 2012, we’ll have to see, but if it does, it won’t be with the same rationale, because Rampart increasingly seems to define itself by not being finely crafted. The Messenger conveyed the sense of meticulous research and reflection and attention to detail; Rampart really doesn’t. The fact it’s so fascinating for all its incoherencies and weirdness might, of course, be evidence of being even more finely crafted for hiding the fact, which I guess only tells us that phrase doesn’t mean much.
Set in Los Angeles in 1999, it studies police officer Dave Brown, a Vietnam veteran not so far from Clint Eastwood’s Harry Calahan in his approach to the job; his colleagues call him “Date Rape” for supposedly cold-bloodedly murdering a serial date rapist some years earlier. He gets caught on film beating up a guy who rammed into his car, becoming a media sensation and the subject of a civil lawsuit; maybe he was set up to distract from the endless scandals attaching to his division; maybe he only survived this long because of friends in high places. The scandal puts pressure on his unconventional domestic arrangements – he married two sisters consecutively, they live in adjacent houses with his two daughters, and he comes and goes, always on the prowl for other women.
The film’s first half carries us along on the back of Brown’s imposing self-righteousness and confidence, suggesting a broadly familiar narrative journey to come, although distinguished with entertaining writing and good observation. Brown is as adept at playing with language as he is with mangling procedures (he studied unsuccessfully for the bar exam); he’s negotiated his way through this jungle for so long, he can’t imagine it not continuing. But Moverman soon starts to undermine the firmness of the terrain; for example, he shoots a conversation between Brown and two others in a series of recurring circular pans, as if intercutting between three carousel rides. It’s a crazily intrusive, unmotivated way of filming an essentially straightforward scene, emphasizing the artificiality of the proceedings, and so calling into question Brown’s grasp of them.
Such techniques become more prominent as the movie goes on, reflecting the escalating confusion about what’s actually going on, mirroring Brown’s slipping sense of control and increasing pessimism. As his legal bills mount up, an old colleague tips him off on an illicit way to make some quick money, but it goes wrong, suggesting another set-up. His “wives” kick him out of the house; a casual pick-up in a bar maybe isn’t that; his phone’s tapped. Moverman conveys the sense of a situation, and correspondingly of a film, bursting at the seams, potentially even courting madness in trying to keep it all together. Ultimately, the picture seems to be toying with multiple endings, showing Brown possibly toying with suicide, trying to cut a deal, possibly contemplating just disappearing and never being seen again; more broadly, trying to maintain any last sliver of control over a situation that’s rapidly overflowing his assumptions and capacities.
I’ve previously quoted from The New York Times’ A O Scott on The Descendants: “In most movies the characters are locked into the machinery of narrative like theme park customers strapped into a roller coaster. Their ups and downs are as predetermined as their shrieks of terror and sighs of relief, and the audience goes along for the ride. But the people in this movie seem to move freely within it, making choices and mistakes and aware, at every turn, that things could be different.” I like the sound of that too, but I’m not sure The Descendants is the best illustration of it. The line came to mind again as I watched Rampart, if only because Moverman seems so anxious (perhaps overly anxious at times) to challenge our sense of predetermination: having chosen one of the most familiar genres and basic situations in American cinema, he strives constantly to make it strange and unfamiliar. The opening scene is standard banter between cops, except for Brown’s weird insistence that his young female partner (another well-worn device in which the movie loses interest early on) eat up the fries she ordered. Time and again, potentially conventional scenes become distinctive through fresh bits of behaviour, and the imaginative casting supports this project too: Moverman casts esteemed Broadway actress Audra McDonald as an easy pick-up, and it can’t be coincidence the wives are both played by actresses well-known for bisexual histories (Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche). Woody Harrelson (who got an Oscar nomination for The Messenger) plays Brown with a fascinating ambiguous flatness; a more conventionally accomplished actor might have given the closing stretch a greater dramatic contour, but only at the cost of simplifying the overall effect. He’s starting to feel like one of the most valuable of stars; his presence links the film to the great quirky works of the 1970’s, when eccentric personalities like Hoffman and Nicholson could be major stars while making stubbornly spiky films.
Brown’s status as a Vietnam veteran links back to that era too, to the long line of movies - Taxi Driver for instance - where the protagonist’s experiences in that wretched war constitute more than just aimless background detail. Taxi Driver, if you recall, has a deliriously incoherent ending: the deranged Travis becomes a repulsive killer, then a hero, then he’s back behind the wheel, and that summary doesn’t come close to conveying how unreadable Scorsese actually makes it all. Rampart doesn’t engineer anything like that, but it draws on the same trauma: Vietnam exploded the country’s myths about itself, and while those who stayed at home might be able to ignore or bandage the wound, the veterans saw too much ever to be duped again about the country’s essential coherence or righteousness. Put more bluntly, given what soldiers were expected to do in Indochina for the sake of abstract strategic positioning, how could they take seriously the hypocrisies operating at home? Why wouldn’t a cop turn bad?
Early on, Brown’s daughter (who addresses him using the “Date Rape” moniker, just for additional family coherence) makes a collage of provocative sexual imagery, which for all his boundary-crossing, leaves him clueless. Again, it’s an overdone metaphor perhaps for how he’s falling out of alignment with the arrangement of things, but if so, at least it’s a fault of artistic over-exuberance, of a director unable to stop gluing new pieces onto his own over-stuffed, but rather shakily gorgeous collage.