We've all seen this movie before: a hard-nosed cop bends the law to keep bad guys off the street, blasting the cowardly suits in the department who privilege political correctness over public safety. When he walks into an interrogation room, everyone finds somewhere else to be; when he comes back out, the brutalized suspect has given up the information they need. A Vietnam veteran with 24 years on the force, Officer Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) lives for the Los Angeles Police Department, its valor and esprit de corps. "This used to be a glorious soldiers' department," he laments to his fellow officers in the movie's opening scene, as they stand around the parking lot of a hot dog stand. "Now it's . . ." He singles out the female rookie who's riding with him. ". . . you." The other officers laugh, and for good measure the cop browbeats her into finishing the carton of greasy fries that came with her meal. "Didn't your dad ever discipline you?" he asks. "I never knew my dad," she deadpans. "He wasn't around."
It's a neat little dig, the sort that makes you realize you haven't seen this one before. Oren Moverman's police drama Rampart takes place in 1999, when the LAPD's Rampart Division, north and northwest of downtown LA, was engulfed in a giant corruption scandal. Harrelson, following up his fine performance as a steely marine in Moverman's The Messenger, comes through again as the renegade officer, nicknamed "Date Rape Dave" for rumors that he killed a serial date rapist 12 years earlier. The role offers the same macho quotient as the earlier one, with assorted beatings and shootings as the crime story unfolds. But what actually dominates on-screen is the cop's complicated relationships with women—from the police administrator coming after him for brutality complaints to the cop-hungry lookers he picks up in bars to his first and second wives, sisters who live in adjoining houses and each have a daughter by him.
Dave may be the baddest dude on the force, but at home he's seriously outgunned. "Hey, Date Rape," cracks his punked-out teenage daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), when he returns from a hard day on the streets. Like Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010), Rampart is striking for its portrait of a nontraditional family, one from which Dave is mostly excluded. All five of them dine together, and as the women laugh and chatter among themselves, he wanders around with his martini, quietly propositioning first his wife, Catherine (Anne Heche), to no avail, and then his ex-wife, Barbara (Cynthia Nixon), who also brushes him off. He tries to pick a fight with Helen about the collage she's just hung in the kitchen, which shows a woman's heel crushing a man's head and CUNT in big red letters. When he asks his sweet younger daughter, Margaret (Sammy Boyarsky), what she thinks of the artwork, the girl replies innocently that it needs more color. Defeated, Dave leaves them to their gyno-centric conversation and heads out to the local tavern in search of sex.
Even in Dave's professional life, the most vivid character turns out to be a woman. His long history of roughing up suspects comes to a head when he's blindsided in his police cruiser by a black driver who then bolts from his car; hopped up from the collision, Dave takes the guy down and beats him nearly to death, and the assault is captured on video and broadcast. Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), the department administrator trying to manage the political fallout from his misconduct, has been around the block a few times and waves away his cop-on-the-street platitudes. Later in the movie, when they share a private moment together outside an elevator, she presses Dave on whether the story about the date rapist is true. "If you were to have done it," she carefully phrases it, "could you tell me why?" Brown grins and replies, "So women would love me." The next time they meet, Confrey has looked into the case and makes a point of informing him that the children of the man he killed were farmed out to foster homes and sexually abused.
Dave has more luck selling his law-and-order spiel to the women he meets in bars, though these scenes sometimes smack of hard-boiled male fantasy. He scores first with Sarah (Audra McDonald), who announces she has "a thing for cops" and winds up in a hotel room with Dave sucking on her toes. Later he hooks up with Linda (Robin Wright), whose eye he catches one evening as the video of him beating the motorist plays on the TV above the bar. She claims to be in real estate, but after their relationship gets going she admits with evident self-loathing that she's a defense attorney for criminal suspects, helping them collect settlements from the city in the wake of the Rampart scandal. She was once on his side, as a prosecutor for the district attorney's office, and confesses that what first drew her to him was the story that he'd killed the date rapist. "There's no proof I killed anyone," Dave protests wearily. "I have daughters."
His reaction is almost the inverse of what he told Confrey in the earlier scene—that he killed the rapist so women would love him—and the contradiction is revealing. In Dave's twisted psychology, he murdered a man in order to protect women like his daughters from a sexual predator; at the same time, he has to protect his daughters from the truth that he's a murderer. As far as Helen is concerned, he's already too late. "You're a dinosaur, Date Rape," she tells him near the end of the movie. "You're a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer, a chauvinist, a misanthrope." Only his younger girl, Margaret, still loves him; there's a touching scene, just after news of the beating has broken on TV, where she wanders into their den and Dave quickly changes the channel. As they snuggle together on the couch, watching a medical drama, Dave glances at the girl and a shadow passes over his face as he considers what he's just set in motion.
Rampart has its flaws: there's a fairly opaque story line featuring Ned Beatty as a retired cop who mentored Dave, and the plot machinations begin to pile up in the movie's second half as Dave, trying to rescue his career on the force, is pulled into even more criminal behavior. But Moverman and screenwriter James Ellroy are really onto something with their observant scenes of Dave's home life; for all his macho bluster, he desperately needs the approval of women, and in the end there's no way to separate his feelings for them from the angry impulses that make him a bad cop. When Anne finally throws him out of the house, calling him a fraud in front of his girls, he's crushed, and in the end he's reduced to spying on the family from the street as they eat dinner without him. For a man like Dave Brown, the ultimate punishment would be the thought of Margaret one day telling people her father wasn't around.