Don't let the marquee fool you: while Woody Harrelson is the star of the upcoming cop drama "Rampart," the film is just as much about the troubled society in which his tortured character exists.
In writer and director Oren Moverman's new drama, Harrelson plays Dave Brown, a member of the LAPD's Rampart division, the hard-scrabble group of cops charged with policing the grittiest parts of inner-city Los Angeles. The film is set in 1999, when the real-life Rampart scandal was making headlines, implicating the unit's officers in a string of alleged beatings, murders, robberies and conspiracies. Already a troublemaker with a long record of misbehavior that includes an alleged murder, Brown gets caught on camera severely beating a man who had plowed into him with his car.
When the video hits the local news, a scandal erupts and Brown's career becomes front-page news. Add in a less-than-ideal home life -- two ex-wives (who happen to be sisters) and a daughter with each -- and Brown is an anti-hero of the highest order, protesting his innocence even as he continues to break any and all police standards in his pursuit of gang members and criminals.
Originally written by Los Angeles institution James Ellroy ("LA Confidential"), the "Rampart" screenplay got passed on to Moverman, who was coming off an Oscar nomination in 2010 for co-writing the military drama "The Messenger," a film that also earned Harrelson an Oscar nod. First, the Israeli-born filmmaker took out many of the characters and plot twists in the initial "Rampart" draft, seeking instead to zero in on the one character. When he traveled to L.A. to do research for the re-write, the film's focus shifted even more dramatically.
In L.A., Moverman and Harrelson got a first-hand look at the daily lives of members of the Rampart unit, going on police ride-alongs and seeing up-close the tensions that mark the everyday interactions of police and civilians. Harrelson synthesized many of the people he met into his portrayal of Brown, while Moverman tried to understand the communities they policed. Statistical evidence mixed with sober observation helped him paint the picture of the streets that Brown splashed with blood.
"We live in a pretty biased society, and we know, for example, the drug problems in African-American communities are not bigger than the drug problems in white communities, but they tend to get arrested a lot more than the people in white communities," he said, calling it a "caste system that is created in this country, almost a Jim Crow kind of attitude, where people lose their hopes and lose their rights."
As Moverman met with officers, LAPD officials and many ex-convicts that had passed through the criminal justice system, he began to see issues far larger and more intractable than simply good guys vs. bad guys.
"I think we have to kind of zoom back from it and see these guys are caught in a game," Moverman said of inner-city police officers. "What are the problems that are really hurting our society, and what kind of society are we giving these guys to police? You look at a society that has turned incarceration into an industry, you look at a society that gives people jail cells over jobs, where the educational system is plummeting in quality, and those are the problems that are the core of the problems we have on the streets of both sides."
That's not to say that Moverman thinks that police are entirely victims, of course; when they break laws or internal ethics rules, he insisted, they should be punished. But that's just the beginning. "Whether it is department-wide changes or fixes or getting rid of bad apples, that's not going to change the situation we see all the time of police violence and brutality and a certain crossing of the line," the director said.
In the film, Brown often reminds people that he served in Vietnam, which he believes will help explain his brutality and law breaking -- after all, policing an inner-city has the same sort of bunker mentality, Moverman said, as policing a foreign territory.
"The point is we've turned a lot of our communities into war zones, and the behavior that comes with it will have atrocities involved, will have situations out of hand," he said. "And I'm not saying we should give up on trying to make cops more informed and better behaved and all that kind of stuff, but if you put a soldier in an occupation where he's basically policing everyone and looking at it as a siege, shit will happen."
"Rampart" opens in limited release on Friday.