11/21/2011 09:22 am ET Updated Jan 21, 2012

Movie review: Rampart

Having teamed up for the emotionally demanding The Messenger, filmmaker Oren Moverman and actor Woody Harrelson join forces again for Rampart, a searing portrait of one man slowly rotting from the inside out, which opens for an Oscar-qualifying run Wednesday (11/23/11).

His name is Dave Brown, he's an LA. cop and his colleagues have nicknamed him "Date Rape Dave." It's not because of his sexual history, however; rather, he is suspected (though never charged) of murdering a serial rapist (who was also never charged).

There are, it seems, no half measures with Dave. He's a tough, no-nonsense police officer who's also a dirty cop. It's 1999, the height of the furor over the Rampart scandal, in which L.A.'s worst division was tarred with the doings of a band of narcotics cops, who were ripping off drug dealers, stealing confiscated money and doing other things that led to numerous cases being thrown out.

Dave wasn't part of that but he's no Boy Scout. Early on, working as a training officer, he sends his charge - a young female officer - out of the room while he roughs up a gang member to get info on a meth-cooking operation. But he manages to skate just out of the spotlight - until a guy smashes his car into Dave's cruiser, then tries to make a run for it.

Dave not only catches him - he beats the crap out of him with a truncheon, an act that is caught on tape a la Rodney King. Suddenly the city isn't focusing on the Rampart scandal but on Dave Brown, poster boy for police brutality.

Despite departmental pressure, however, Dave won't quit the force. A law-school graduate who never passed the bar, he articulately keeps his official tormenters at bay, even as he tries to smooth things over at home.

But home is no haven. He's twice divorced - from sisters (played by Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche). To make matters more uncomfortable, he lives next door to the house where the two women live with the kids that each had with him.

Moverman, who wrote the script from a James Ellroy original, isn't telling a redemption story here. If you asked Dave, he doesn't need to be redeemed because he hasn't done anything wrong. He's a cop on the beat, doing what needs to be done to keep the peace and, coincidentally, put a little money in his own pocket.

Not that there aren't victims to his malfeasance: Brown is, after all, a guy who will do whatever's necessary to keep himself alive and employed with a badge. But even as he trolls his local bar for women - hooking up with an attorney played by Robin Wright - he's slowly closing himself off from everyone: his ex-wives, his fellow officers, the woman he's seeing.

He's also too reckless not to expose himself to further jeopardy, whether it's a setup at a high-stakes poker game he hopes to rob or a benighted quest for sensation that takes him to a hardcore punk club. He drinks to excess, seems to constantly have a lit cigarette in his mouth and is always just one step ahead of Internal Affairs. He doesn't know who he can trust - and makes sure that, in the end, he can barely even trust himself.

In some ways, Moverman has made a new version of Bad Lieutenant, except that this guy isn't having a crisis of spirit. Instead, Moverman's character is almost atavistic, operating like a shark who has to keep moving forward to sustain himself, devouring everything in his way.

The character is offered in a savage, white-hot performance by Harrelson, who embodies the live-wire adrenalized impulse inside this character. You won't end up liking Dave Brown but you may wind up pitying him. And you can't help be fascinated by his sheer self-destructive cunning. The balls on this guy are amazing.

Rampart is intense story-telling, though it's less about the plot than the character study. But he's a character you can't take your eyes off, even as you're silently abhorring the choices he makes.

Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.